Roland B. Gittelsohn

Roland B. Gittelsohn (May 13, 1910 to December 13, 1995) was an American Reform Rabbi, community leader, and outspoken voice of conscience. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, he received a B.A. in 1931 from Western Reserve University and a B.H. from Hebrew Union College in 1934. He was ordained at Hebrew Union College in 1936. Gittelsohn then undertook graduate studies at the Teachers’ College, Columbia University and New School in New York. He initially served at the Central Synagogue of Nassau County, N.Y. from 1936-1953. During WWII, Gittelsohn was a chaplain with the 5th Marine Division, participating in the Iwo Jima invasion. His dedication of the cemetery and memorial for Iwo Jima was widely publicized, mainly because of a controversy over having a rabbi say a prayer at the graves of non-Jews. This address is perhaps one of his most famous legacies. He was also awarded three ribbons for his service at Iwo Jima. After the war, Gittelsohn served on President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights in 1947. During the McCarthy and House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) era, Gittelsohn publicly denounced the steady erosion of civil liberties in America. In 1954, Gittelsohn moved to Temple Israel in Boston, where he would remain for the rest of his career, serving as president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis from 1958-1960 and president of the Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Boston 1961-1963. Meanwhile, He served in the Governor’s Commission to Survey Massachusetts Courts in 1955, Massachusetts Commission on Abolition of the Death Penalty 1957-1958, the Governor’s Committee on Migratory Labor 1960-1962 and the Governor’s Committee to Survey Operation of Massachusetts Prisons 1961-1962. From its outset, Gittelsohn condemned the Vietnam War.

Gittelsohn received two honorary degrees in 1961, the first being a D.D. from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the other a Sc.D. from Lowell Technological Institute (now Lowell University). He became president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) 1969-1971, founding president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) 1977-1984 and the founding president of the World Zionist Executive & Jewish Agency Board of Governors 1978-1984. Gittelsohn was also extremely active in the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC). He was on its Board of Trustees and was the Vice Chairman 1973-1977, was an honorary life member and the Chairman of the Commission on Jewish Education 1959-1968. Gittelsohn received two awards from the UAHC, the Eisendrath Award in 1983 and the Jay Kaufman Award in 1984.

(Much of this text was adapted from Rabbi Gittelsohn's biography prepared by the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, Ohio.)