Dr. Saul Wachs, the Rosaline B. Feinstein Professor of Education and Liturgy, is retiring at the age of 85, after 42 years of teaching at Gratz College. Described as a legend within the field of Jewish education, Dr. Wachs will be honored with a tribute at the Gratz annual gala, an honorary doctorate at commencement and a scholarship prize created in his name. He has also been granted emeritus status by the Gratz College Board of Governors.
Dr. Wachs first arrived at Gratz well before the beginning of his teaching career: in 1948, he started as a student in the Gratz Hebrew teachers program. Sixty-nine years later, he is leaving as one of the longest-serving faculty members in College history. Although he claims to have “made peace” with the idea of retiring, he is maintaining an office in the building and is still hoping to do some teaching.
In 1975, after 22 years as an education director, teacher and/or music director at various synagogues; two years as an adjunct professor at The Jewish Theological Seminary; and three years as an associate professor of Jewish education at Brandeis University, Dr. Wachs was appointed dean of Gratz College. During his five-year tenure as dean, he pushed the College to expand into the area of graduate education, which has since become the mainstay of Gratz programming. In addition, he chaired the Department of Jewish Education for 41 years and helped establish the College’s first doctoral program: the Doctorate in Jewish Education.
During the course of his long career, Dr. Wachs has lectured in almost 400 communities on five continents, authored close to 90 publications and served as scholar-in-residence over 100 times in institutions throughout the United States and beyond. As a national field consultant for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, he visited every Solomon Schechter Day School in North America — and suspects that he may be the only person able to make this claim. Dr. Wachs has served as the High Holiday cantor for a synagogue in Brookline, Massachusetts, for 45 years. And, he recorded a series of cassettes — now being converted into a more updated format — that taught legions of people how to chant and lead services, including students in the cantorial and rabbinical school in Buenos Aires.
Yet more than the numbers, it is the testimony of people who know Dr. Wachs that best sheds light on his profound impact. For example, Zipora Schorr, a current student in the Gratz doctoral program in Jewish education, describes Dr. Wachs as “an inspiration to Jew and non-Jew alike.” She continues, “As we all know, his erudition is impressive, but it is his ‘big-tent’ approach to Judaism that makes him such an influential and powerful leader. He is truly a remarkable and unique force. Having Dr. Wachs in our midst is a blessing that we do not take for granted.”
It is this “big-tent approach to Judaism” that informs Dr. Wachs’ work and his respect for Gratz College. Describing Gratz as “a microcosm of a learning community,” he explains, “Anyone can walk into this place and say, ‘I belong.’ It’s a place that puts learning at the center.”
Gratz College Interim President Rabbi Erin Hirsh sounded the same theme about Dr. Wachs when she referred to him as “respectful and pluralistic to his core.” She added, “Dr. Wachs is a true gentleman and scholar, and as wise as he is, he likes nothing more than to learn something from a student or colleague. I am extraordinarily grateful that I have had the opportunity to learn and work with him and to seek his good counsel.”
Outside the Gratz community, this outpouring of respect continues. Dan Loeb, publisher of The Philadelphia Jewish Voice and co-congregant of Dr. Wachs at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood, describes him as “a real family man, often seen in the Havurah with his wife, Diane Cover, and his grandchildren, to whom he has clearly imparted a great appreciation for our liturgy.”
Rabbi Neil Cooper, of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, also shared his thoughts:
Saul is both a donor and a consumer when it comes to our synagogue. He has never said no when asked to teach. Through his classes, which are always filled to capacity, he has influenced more than a generation of our members to appreciate and participate in the traditional services that we conduct.
At the same time, he is with us for Shabbat services each week, participating fully, always with an eye searching for ways to innovate and improve, with an ear attuned to proper musical modes and touches and with a voice for singing at every opportunity. Our synagogue would not have been the same were it not for Saul’s presence, his expertise and his love for synagogues and for liturgy. Now that he is retiring from Gratz, we expect to make use of his unique gifts on even more occasions!
The public is invited to the Gratz College Jeffrey B. Plevan Annual Gala, where Dr. Wachs will be honored, as well as to the Gratz College commencement, where he will receive his honorary doctorate. For more information on these events and on the tribute being created for Dr. Wachs, contact Len Zimmerman (215-635-7300, ext. 153), director of development at Gratz College, or Mindy Cohen (215-635-7300, ext. 155), event coordinator.