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NEWS - News of the Lodges

ProfessorSimonLauerWhen and where were you born?
My parents felt very happy at the birth of their only child, in March 1929, in Mannheim (Germany), although just at this time men in brown shirts first marched in town.
Tell us something of your early life and the history of your family
My mother was the eldest daughter of Rabbi Dr. Simon Eppenstein who for the last decade of his short life served as a lecturer at the Berlin Rabbinerseminar. My father, Rabbi Dr. Chaim Lauer, was called, in 1924, to work with the elderly Rabbi of the Klaus, Dr. Isac Unna, one of Germany's leading orthodox rabbis. When, in 1935, Dr. Unna retired and joined the majority of his children in Palestine, my father remained the sole rabbi of this congregation. So, I best remember life in the Klausapartement in the complex of the Klaus. No doubt, my father would have remained with his congregants to the bitter end; they were deported to terrible camps in Southern France and further on. However, as we already were citizens of Switzerland, the Swiss consul urged us, right after the night of pogrom on November 9th, 1938, to return immediately to Switzerland; which we did. Already a fortnight before, I was woken very early in the morning by steps and voices from the staircase: Students of the yeshiva of Polish origin but paperless were arrested to be deported to the no-man's land at the German-Polish border. One of the German students gave me regular private lessons in chumash with Rashi. Moshe Perlmann eventually joined Kibbutz Tirath Tzevi and achieved some fame as a musicologist. It so happens that just a little while ago I met his son, a well-known producer and teacher of Israeli theater. As from 1935, even before the ill-famous racial laws were promulgated, Jewish children had to attend Jewish schools only. I have no positive recollection at all from my ways to and from school.
Back in Switzerland, my father and I went to a Jewish boarding school in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, whilst my mother returned to Mannheim, in order to dissolve the household (and to save some important books from the Congregation's library). My father had been Rabbi at Biel from 1916 through 1924; the post having been vacant since, my father was re-installed, and I entered school. The congregation, indeed, had diminished and was heavily struck by the crisis and the war, as most of the Jews were either in the textile trade or small manufacturers of watches; these are the first branches to be affected by economical crises. In addition, Swiss Jews were supposed to pay for Jewish refugees and to look after them beyond the most elementary needs. As for the region of Biel, there were three camps for civilians and one for the part of the French army which had escaped to Switzerland with many Jews in its ranks. As my father had achieved fame in Germany for his great expertise in halakha, some of his colleagues relied on him. I had better not to go into details of the inner-Jewish debate on the issue of shechita.
As for my mother, apart from her full engagement in her duties as the Rabbi's wife, some five hundred letters are extant as documents of her work on behalf of refugees. My mother's family were religious Zionists from the start, my father was amongst the first members of Mizrahi. This did  not prevent my parents to host members of Hashomer Hatzair as well as a couple of Bundists. So, I met very many people of different ages, origins, mentalities. I still remember some of them, but I would be hard put to go into details – which, from the point of view of oral history,  is a shame. My mother had learned social working through the practice of her parents while my grandfather served as Rabbi of a small congregation near the German-Polish border before World War I. Moreover she had passed through the hard school of Jewish nurses at Berlin during war-time. Still, it is hard to explain how she achieved so much, with a husband seriously ill as from 1942.
My father passed away in August, 1945, broken by the loss of so many close relatives, his Mannheim congregation, and many colleagues, more than by his illness. My mother, who did not have an easy time for the following twenty years, lived to see my son, a few months before her passing away, in 1970.
Can you tell us something about your education
Nearly as much as by my parents I still am impressed by my teachers at gymnasium (grammar school), especially the headmaster, a staunch protestant who practiced tolerance at its very best. No wonder I took to study Greek, Latin, and Semitics, and informally philosophy and musicology at the University of Berne. Considering our precarious financial state and the fact that I had „lost“ four years at a sanatorium, I tried to complete my studies within the required minimum of time. Nevertheless, a year at Hebrew University and one at Manchester (under Rabbi Dr. Alexander Altmann z“l) were squeezed in. I still hold all my teachers in very high respect, having had the great luck of sitting at the feet of some of the greatest scholars of the 20th century, especially in Jewish studies. The sanatorium, created by Joint and run by OSE, was destined to young people who were liberated from concentration camps in Germany, most of them hailing from Poland. This gave me some insight into everday life in Poland before WW II, as well as some knowledge of Yiddish.
What about your early professional life?
Having completed my academic education, and one more year with Rabbi Dr. Altmann z“l  and his outstanding staff, I looked for a teacher's post at a gymnasium in Switzerland. This was not easy for a practising Jew, because very few schools were ready to accept a teacher not being prepared to work on Shabbath and Yom Tov. I received a position at the newly established school of the small Kanton of Glarus (50'000 inhabitants), at the center of Switzerland, surrounded by high mountains. These ten years were the highlight of my professional life, with highly motivated, intelligent and creative pupils, very nice colleagues, and in a town of 5'000 people with an astonishing musical life. I had to teach Greek, Latin, German, and (optional) Biblical Hebrew, for many hours and, sometimes, in crowded classes. But I was challenged to develop a creativity which I never reached afterwards again. It was a moving hour when I was surrounded by former pupils at an event at Glarus, 37 years after I had left.
Work was much harder the following twelve years at St. Gallen, at a rather big school, with people of a very different mental make-up. This was compensated by my close relationship with the truely outstanding rabbi of the small, and rather reform-oriented, Congregation, Rabbi I. H. Schmelzer. Much more rewarding was my last post as closest colleague of the head of the newly established „Institute for Jewish-Christian Research“ at the University of Lucerne. After a while of pure research in narrative rabbinic literature, I was called to teach post-biblical Hebrew and Babylonian Aramaic. Moreover, I was invited to give lectures in many places.
In the tradition of my family involvement in work for kelal Yisrael was self-understood. So, as a boy, I used to collect small money from KKL blue boxes, although I was not welcome in many houses. In sanatorium I was a madrikh for the small group of religious zionists, afterwards an active member of the students' union. In St. Gallen I was active at the Synagogue, with the Chevra Kadisha, and as a delegate to the Central Committee of the Swiss Federation of Israelite Congregations. When this Federation created a Jewish-Catholic Group of Dialogue together with the Swiss Conference of Bishops, I also became a member. (By the way, at that time the seven members of the Executive of the said Federation were Brethren, as well as some ninety percent of the Central Committee. Today, the majority of the Executive are Brethren.)
What about your early links to B'nai B'rith?
My father, my grand-father from  my mother's side and two of her three brothers were Brethren. Moreover, Chief-Rabbi Marcus Melchior z“l, who had been a student of my grandfather at Berlin Rabbinerseminar and my father's colleague when a rabbi in Germany, never missed a visit to my mother when he was in Switzerland. I have a vivid memory of this outstanding man. So it was quite natural for me to beg to be admitted to our beloved Order. I am very happy, indeed, that my son carries on. So, a few months before I got married, I was introduced to the worthy Augustin Keller-Lodge at Zürich, where I came to serve as Guardian (responsible also for the cultural programme). When I moved to Basel I changed to the Basel-Lodge whose presidency I assumed for four years. During my stay in French-speaking Switzerland I also joined the Lodge Edmond Fleg at Lausanne. Under our dear Brother Ralph Weill z“l, with whom I had already worked at the Federation of Congregations, I joined the Committee on Cultural Affairs, and now I am in charge of Jewish-Christian dialogue. For some Conventions I had the honour to deliver the daily devar torah.
When and where did you meet your wife? What about children and grandchildren?
A short time after my introduction to B'nai B'rith, I became a husband. My marriage was an arranged one, the bride came from a small place in Alsace, which in the past had been the seat of a Yeshiva; the large cemetery shows the graves of many important rabbis. The marriage was blessed with a son and a daughter; both have developed to be wonderful people, each in his/her way. I have four young grandchildren: three girls and one boy. After twenty-six years, alas, my wife passed away.
What are your main interests outside B'nai B'rith?
My interests are Jewish studies: Traditional learning, Jewish thought, liturgy. My relations with Christians, especially catholics, brings me to general theology and philosophy, which fascinates me. My Jewish pet philosophers are Moses Mendelssohn and Hermann Cohen. As far as time is left, I listen to classical music and practice playing the flute.
What do you see as the main problems facing B'nai B'rith in Europe?
At first sight, the main problem of BB in Europe would seem to be a lack of manpower. The basic problem, however, may be the crisis of that social body called „Order“. I am under the impression resulting from my looking at people of more than one generation, that too many persons are very reluctant, if not explicitly unwilling, to be seriously involved in a binding relationship of any kind. This applies not only to adults more often than not struggling for an occupation which would allow them to earn a living or else, once it is reached, under extremely high professional demands.
Still, no doubt there are people of quite another mental make-up; however, they seem to be too far between to be found easily. Another problem would appear to be the fact that we do not really have this kind of organization in our social history. (A sect is not an order.) After all, B'nai B'rith at its very beginnings was inspired by Free-Masonry. Nevertheless, as far as I am concerned, I am certain that B'nai B'rith is at least as necessary as ever, not only in order to practice charity, but most of all to strive for harmony (not unity!) amongst diverging trends within our people - religious, cultural, and otherwise -, and in addition to promote it in the world at large.
How do you think we can attract younger people to join us?
Since we are definitely neither a kindergarten nor a youth movement in the stricter sense, we have to focus our outreach on young adults (which is admirably done by the „Forum of Young Jewish Adults“) and to look out for not so young but tried and high-minded persons. This, to be sure, will not be easy; still it is worthwhile to try relentlessly.