Judaism has always been a large part of Howard Schwartz’s life, but only after moving to Tucson did he truly fall into his role as a teacher of Jewish beliefs. The doctor turned rabbi uses his time post-retirement volunteering at different synagogues to give lectures on Judaism, and has become an integral part of the local Jewish community.
Schwartz, 83, was raised in the Bronx, New York, and didn’t follow the path to the rabbinate that his father and uncles, themselves rabbis, had set out for him. As a young boy he went to a Jewish day school and later finished his medical degree at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in New York City.
Schwartz did his residency at the NYU Bellevue Hospital and Medical Center, then served two years in the U.S. Army at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. Finally, he completed a fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital, the teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School, before he decided to settle in Cleveland.
In Ohio, he took a position at Case Western Reserve Medical School and worked until he fell ill. After battling sarcoma, Schwartz tried to go back to his old job but found it too strenuous.
Schwartz and his wife decided to move out of the cold, icy city and settle in Tucson, where they have now lived for over 20 years. This is where Schwartz really turned to the Jewish religion.
“After we moved here, I became aware of a program to study for the rabbinate,” Schwartz says. “And just for the sake of doing it, not for any other reason other than just for its own sake, I became certified after a couple of years of study.”
So, Dr. Howard Schwartz became Rabbi Dr. Howard Schwartz. Despite the new title, he still prefers to go by
After becoming a rabbi, Schwartz decided to volunteer his time wherever it was needed, sharing what he knew about the Torah and Jewish teachings.
Besides serving on multiple boards, which have included Congregation Bet Shalom, the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, the Jewish History Museum, Tucson Hebrew Academy, and the University of Arizona Hillel Foundation, he has been a visiting scholar at the university’s Arizona Center for Judaic Studies, and has been teaching at Bet Shalom and Congregation Anshei Israel. Until the COVID-19 pandemic began, he was going once a week to Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging for 60- to 90-minute educational sessions with a group of residents.
His generosity and humility have garnered him a great deal of respect in the Jewish community. In 2018 he received the Federation’s Man of the Year award for his work in furthering the Jewish education.
“It’s such a blessing to have him here at Bet Shalom,” says Rabbi Avi Alpert. “He’s very tolerant in making space for others and he leaves it open for people to disagree with him when he’s teaching. He does a really good job facilitating people and giving them the space to express themselves.”
Schwartz says his favorite part of teaching is making it interactive. “Besides keeping me on my toes, there’s more retention because they’re not just receiving, they’re thinking,” he says.
His students range from young teens to the elderly, and he rarely says no to an opportunity to teach.
“He is always available, perhaps too often,” says Schwartz’s wife, Trudy. “He doesn’t know how to say no when asked to do something.”
The couple have known each other for 58 years, and Trudy says she knew she had found a good man as soon as they met. The pair were married less than eight months after they began dating, and after many years, children, and grandchildren, they remain as strong as ever.
“He cares,” Trudy says. “Seeing ways of educating the next generation is one of his top priorities, as well as informing the current generation about things they are not familiar with in Judaism.”
A few years ago, Schwartz came across a quote by the Lubavitcher Rebbe: “If you see what needs to be repaired and how to repair it, then you have found a piece of the world that God has left for you to complete. But if you only see what is wrong and what is ugly in the world, then it is you yourself that needs repair.”
The quote rang a bell for Schwartz, and he credits it as one of the main concepts that keeps him going.
“We’re supposed to have a positive outlook and be a contributor to your community,” Schwartz says. “Sometimes I get worn out or tired and then this strikes me, and I say, ‘No, I’ve got to keep going.’”
His continuing efforts are appreciated. “He’s one of the pillars of the community,” says David Wein, a friend of Schwartz and a member of Congregation Bet Shalom. “He loves so much. He loves the Torah, he loves the people in the community, and he just doesn’t want to ever turn away anything.”
Sofia Moraga is a student at the University of Arizona School of Journalism.