Afew weeks ago, I was invited by Rabbi Jonathan Woll to visit him at Temple Avoda in Fair Lawn. We sat in his office and discussed several ideas and plans when I noticed a book on his desk. "Rabbi," I said, "I was not aware that you are interested in biblical archeology." I pointed to the book on the desk: a biography of Nelson Glueck.
Two things happened that moment that surprised me: Rabbi Woll picked up the book and announced, "Professor Glueck was a great biblical archeologist, but also had a second career. He was a great Reform rabbi and president of the Hebrew Union College in America for nearly three decades."
The second surprise was that Rabbi Woll offered me the book. "You’ve earned it," he said. "Not many people have heard of Professor Glueck. Read it and keep it as a present."
When I was an archeology student at Hebrew University I was very well acquainted with Glueck’s writings. His books and articles are the foundation of the early explorations of the Negev, and especially the Eilat region. Glueck also revealed the fascinating culture of an ancient Arab tribe, the Nabateans. But his fame came from the first survey of Transjordan, the Sinai, and the Negev in the ’30s, revealing hundreds of unknown archeological sites.
Glueck was a student of the founder of pre-Israel’s biblical archeology discipline, William Foxwell Albright, and followed his footsteps in using pottery shards as a marker that can enable one to study the time frame of a site. Glueck was a master of this skill, and as young students we read that Glueck would ride his camel in the desert and discern the origin of a pottery shard without even descending from the camel’s back.
Glueck published several books about his work in pre-Israel Palestine, all of them still studied by archeology students all around the world.
I knew quite a lot about his archeological work and books before reading his biography, but I was astonished to learn about Glueck’s other side, the one I am afraid many Israelis are unaware of, that of leading America’s Reform movement .
Glueck was born and raised in Cincinnati. He studied and was ordained in America’s only Hebrew Union College in those days, in 19’3. He then earned his doctrate in biblical theology from the University of Jena in Germany in 19’7. He settled in Jerusalem immediately after his graduation. His first years in Jerusalem were enhanced by teaching at Albright’s American School of Oriental Studies. As a professor at this institute, Glueck traveled the Middle East on surveys and also participated in some major archeological excavations. After marrying Helen Iglauer in 1931 Glueck returned to Jerusalem, where he succeeded Albright as head of the American school. He dedicated the next two decades to Middle East research. This is when his world-famous achievements of excavating Tel El Chalif, exploring Transjordan, and surveying the Negev took place. His work and books granted him international fame and he established a reputation as one of the world’s leading biblical archeologists.
In 1947, Glueck was recalled to America to lead Hebrew Union College. He held this position until 1971. During these ‘5 years, Glueck led the college to many great achievements. He oversaw the merger with the New York-based Jewish Institute of Religion and expanded the Cincinnati-based institution to include schools in New York and Los Angeles. In Jerusalem, he founded and nurtured the School of Biblical and Archeological Studies (now known as the Jerusalem Hebrew Union College, on King David Street).
Throughout his years as scientist and scholar and then as spiritual leader, Glueck kept close ties with Israel’s leaders. He was a friend to Abba Eban, David Ben-Gurion, Henrietta Szold, Golda Meir, and Judah Magnes.
A person usually considers himself blessed to create one successful career but Glueck was a unique individual who managed to run two careers in two different countries.
His fame, leadership, and charisma were a great asset to the Jewish people. The highlight of his recognition was when America’s first Catholic President, John F, Kennedy, asked that Glueck offer the benediction at his inauguration on Jan. ‘0, 1961. In front of the entire nation, Glueck recited the prayer he had prepared, concluding with the Birkat HaKohanim, the priestly blessing from Numbers 6: ‘4-‘6.
This week is Glueck’s 37th yahrzeit. He died on Feb. 1′, 1971, and is buried in the United Hebrew Cemetery, in Walnut Hills, Cincinnati.
Glueck devoted his life to serve the Jewish people, and was one of the few who did so both in Israel and America. Let us all remember him as a great Jewish scholar and a spiritual leader and as a model of engagement between the two large Jewish communities in Israel and in North America.
David Hyman is shaliach and director of the Israel Programs Center of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.