Bob Schwartz has been involved with the Jewish community since he was a child growing up in the suburbs of New Jersey. He has been a part of nine congregations in six states and has been active within the Jewish community in Tucson for two years. A former attorney, he created the “Forum on the Death Penalty and Judaism: The Tree of Life Synagogue,” held in December at Temple Emanu-El. The forum, he says, provided a safe space for Jewish community members to discuss the arguments for and against capital punishment in the case of the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Schwartz, 68, was born in the Bronx and lived there with his sister, parents, and grandparents in a three-bedroom apartment until he was in the fourth grade when his family moved to Fort Lee, New Jersey. During his senior year of high school, he was president of the Young Judea youth group at his congregation.
Schwartz attended the University of Pennsylvania, studying psychology. After graduating, he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life.
“The next thing I did, not being at all clear of any professional goal at that point, I became a bookseller.” Schwartz ran a university bookstore. He has been connected to books his entire life and vividly recalls the first time he checked out a book at the library: “I have no idea how old I was, I could have been five maybe. But, I remember the library and I remember the book I took out, a book on ants. Books have been my life well before I got into it professionally.”
Offered a job as manager of a new bookstore in Delaware, Schwartz took it on a whim. It was where he met the most important person in his life — his wife.
“I was sitting out front of an empty store enjoying the beautiful weather and a stunning woman passed by to talk to me and that was my Kathleen,” Schwartz said. The Schwartzes stayed in Delaware for two years before moved to Seattle.
In Seattle, Schwartz decided on a more professional path and went to law school. He practiced law at a midsize firm, where his work included intellectual property, bankruptcy, and banking. Schwartz loved practicing law, and although he did not practice it for most of his life, he feels he grew the most as a lawyer.
“I had one professor who taught a very unusual course, one that was required. It was called ‘Law, Language and Ethics,’ which is the name of the book he wrote, a book I still keep nearby. It was, as the title implies, actually a philosophy course. In practice, as in life, there isn’t a whole lot of time for philosophizing. What I’ve never forgotten since, and constantly turn to in every endeavor, is that there is, apparently or not, a philosophical underpinning,” says Schwartz.
After some time in Seattle, Schwartz moved to California and worked in marketing and editing for an organization in religious publishing.
“Not being Christian did not seem to be a problem for anyone. It wasn’t a problem for me; in fact, it was the opposite of a problem because I don’t have the borders that some people have about my religious thinking.”
Schwartz worked in publishing and marketing for a multi-faith wisdom university and then a religion scholarship institute, followed by publishing houses associated with an Episcopal church. He then was a literary agent and publishing consultant. When Schwartz moved to Tucson, he became a marketing research consultant. He continues to do writing, editing, and educational work.
”I’ve been substantially fulfilled by all of my roles,” says Schwartz. “While I left the practice of law behind, it remains a core of who I am. Obviously, books and publishing also are at my core, and there is not a moment that I’ve spent working with authors and scholars that hasn’t fulfilled me. But at this later point, I might say that any work I have done in the world of religion has spoken the loudest to me, as it still does.”
In addition to New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Washington, California, and Arizona, Schwartz lived in Florida, Mississippi, and Ohio.
Along with spreading his professional success around the country, Schwartz has been able to do volunteer work wherever he goes, starting as a student at the University of Pennsylvania, where he found a notice for literacy volunteers. “It was great work. I don’t do literacy volunteer work now, but we do support Tucson’s Make Way for Books, which is a great non-profit,” Schwartz says.
Working for the multi-faith university inspired a desire to spread awareness about Judaism to people within his community, but he did not start until he moved to Tupelo, Mississippi.
Schwartz focused on community education in Tupelo, visiting churches and talking to non-Jewish people about the Holocaust and his faith. He scheduled visits to his synagogue for school kids and for people interested in learning more about Judaism. He co-founded a Torah study group and other initiatives within his synagogue. He then was appointed to the state Holocaust Commission and eventually worked with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“There is an astonishing body of Jewish learning and knowledge available, particularly of contemporary thinkers and works. I see myself helping to creatively connect people to that,” he says.
Despite all his achievements, Schwartz says the greatest is his family. “I have a decades-long marriage to the most beautiful, smartest person I’ve ever known. And I have a wonderful son. It’s not an accomplishment like ‘I built this thing,’ but rather you maintained it against all odds with a lot of work. It’s no problem to find someone to share a life with and it’s no problem to have a kid; it’s an absurd amount of work to maintain both of those.”
His advice to a younger generation: “Be adventurous. Take risks, play, experiment, and explore.”