ASHER, JOSEPH


ASHER, JOSEPH
ASHER, JOSEPH (1921–1990), U.S. Reform rabbi. Asher, born Joseph Ansbacher in Wiesbaden, Germany, was the scion of a line of Orthodox rabbis going back six generations. His father, Rabbi Jonah Ansbacher, learned in science and classics as well as Jewish law, broke with his traditional forebears by embracing the Neo-Orthodoxy of Samson Raphael hirsch . At age 17, shortly before Kristallnacht, Joseph fled to London, where he enrolled in the Orthodox Tree of Life Yeshiva. But he also gravitated toward Reform Judaism, influenced by lily montagu who had founded the World Union of Progressive Judaism. In 1940, Asher was interned by the British as a "friendly enemy alien," and endured abusive conditions aboard the HMT Dunera, which transported him and 2,000 other German-Jewish refugees to Australia. There he ultimately served as assistant rabbi in the Melbourne synagogue of Hermann Sanger, a German refugee who had established Liberal Judaism in Australia. Asher, who had been ordained by the Tree of Life (having finished the course of study by correspondence), came to America in the late 1940s and attended Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in order to familiarize himself further with the Reform movement. After pulpits in Florida and Alabama, he became the spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel of Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1958. He was active in the civil rights struggle, staunchly supporting the nation's first sit-ins held at that city's Woolworth's lunch counter. He became known outside the South with a highly controversial article in Look magazine in April 1965, urging reconciliation between Jews and Germans, which remained a lifelong preoccupation. The quest for social justice at home and abroad characterized Asher's rabbinate at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco (1968–85), a synagogue with Gold Rush roots and the largest in Northern California. He opposed the Vietnam War, favored busing to achieve integration of the public schools, and highlighted such issues as world hunger, arms control, and the murder of thousands of Jehovah's witnesses in Africa. Appointed to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council by President Carter in 1980, and a close friend of its chairman, elie wiesel , Asher emphasized the figure of 11 million people rather than six million Jews killed by Hitler. The outspoken Asher was frequently embroiled in local controversies. He joined the national board of Breira, one of the few leading American pulpit rabbis to do so. The organization was sharply critical of Israel's policies toward the Palestinians. He also drew attention to many of the Jewish state's domestic problems, most notably the undue influence of its religious establishment. Yet Asher was decidedly conservative on American social and cultural issues and was offended by the irreverent youth culture and strident gay rights movement that took root in San Francisco in the late 1960s and 1970s. He also opposed and even ridiculed many of the alternative forms of American Judaism. Within Congregation Emanu-El, he and his cantor/educator, Joseph Portnoy, sought to preserve many aspects of the Classical Reform service and resisted attempts to bring the liturgy into the mainstream of Judaism even in the face of declining membership. Still, Asher was deeply respected by his flock and the larger community for the depth of his Jewish and secular learning, his masterfully crafted sermons, and his uncommon devotion to pastoral duties. -BIBLIOGRAPHY: F. Rosenbaum, Visions of Reform: Congregation Emanu-El and the Jews of San Francisco, 1849-1999 (2000); M. Rischin and R. Asher (eds.), The Jewish Legacy and the German Conscience: Essays in Memory of Rabbi Joseph Asher (1991). (Fred Rosenbaum (2nd ed.)

Encyclopedia Judaica. 1971.

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