By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Rabbi Harold Schulweis, a tireless innovator who implored followers to fight against genocide and see Judaism as a religion with universal significance, has died at age 89 at his Los Angeles home, his synagogue said in a statement.
Schulweis, who was regarded as one of the most influential rabbis of his generation, died on Thursday after a struggle with heart disease, his congregation Valley Beth Shalom said in a statement.
"Rabbi Schulweis was in many ways an innovator and an inspiration and a man who didn't worry about artificial boundaries, and that was his greatness," said Rabbi Bradley Artson, dean of the rabbinic school at American Jewish University. Schulweis taught at the university.
The New York-born Schulweis in 1970 was invited to take the pulpit at Valley Beth Shalom, a Los Angeles synagogue in Judaism's Conservative branch. In more than four decades leading it, he introduced a number of practices that were replicated at synagogues across the United States.
Those included welcoming gays and lesbians, fostering personal connections by breaking the congregation into "havurot" - a Hebrew word for intimate gatherings - and launching a "para-rabbinic" initiative that trained lay members of the community to guide people through events such as a loved one's death, Artson said.
Schulweis would typically outline his vision for a new project in a Jewish high holidays sermon, after giving his congregation a reading list to prepare them.
During a sermon, he would quote as comfortably from rabbinic writings as non-Jewish sources, Artson said. Those might include thoughts of Jewish-Persian figure, French romantic poetry or a Buddhist maxim, he said.
In a 2004 high holiday sermon, Schulweis challenged his congregation to develop a Jewish response to prevent the genocide of any people, reminding them of the oath "never again" that became a rallying cry after the Holocaust.
Attorney Janice Kamenir-Reznik took up the call and created Jewish World Watch, which has played a leading role in mobilizing against mass killings in Africa and counts Schulweis as a co-founder.
Schulweis, who wrote that Judaism held a "sacred universalism," also helped create hunger and poverty relief group Mazon and founded an organization that would later be called the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, dedicated to supporting Christians who rescued Jews during the Holocaust.
He is survived by his wife, Malkah, three children and 11 grandchildren. Funeral services will be held on Sunday at Valley Beth Shalom.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)