1966: A Rabbi Is Shot in Detroit

It would take Morris Adler a month to die of his wounds, delivered by a suicidal congregant driven mad by visions of holiness and desecration.

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The synagogue of the Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, a suburb of Detroit, Michigan.
The synagogue of the Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Detroit, Michigan, where Rabbi Morris Adler was shot by Richard Wishnetzky.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On February 12, 1966, Rabbi Morris Adler, longtime leader of the Conservative synagogue Sha’arey Zedek, in suburban Detroit, was shot in front of his congregation by a mentally disturbed young member, who then turned his gun on himself. Adler died four weeks later.

Morris Adler was a big figure, not only in his synagogue of more than 1,000 families, not only in Conservative Judaism, but also in the communal life of Detroit, where he served on a variety of commissions and public bodies.

He had been born in Slutsk, Russia (today, Belarus), on March 30, 1906, and was brought to the United States in 1913 by his parents, Rabbi Joseph Adler and the former Jennie Resnick. After graduating in 1928 from the City College of New York, Adler decided he wanted to enter the rabbinate – like his father, only as a Conservative rabbi.

After ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary, in 1935, Adler worked briefly at a synagogue in Buffalo, New York, before becoming assistant rabbi at Sha’arey Zedek in 1938. He remained there for the rest of his career – except for his service as an army chaplain in the Pacific during World War II, and a 1964-65 sabbatical in Israel – becoming “rabbi for life” in 1954. 

A 'holy life'

At Sha'arey Zedek, Adler plunged into the field of adult education, was involved in a variety of ecumenical activities, not only with non-Jews in Detroit, but also in an effort to improve communication between different Jewish denominations. His was also an adviser to the United Auto Workers, an important force in Michigan in those days, and a close friend of the union’s president, Walter Reuther.

By all accounts, Adler was attentive to his congregants too, and was available to provide religious services and counseling. In fact, in the months preceding his murder, he had met a number of times with Richard Wishnetsky, the 23-year-old congregant who shot him that Shabbat morning.

Wishnetsky was a brilliant young man. A 1964 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Michigan, he had been strongly affected by the November 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The following summer, he went to Israel, and when he returned home, he was a changed man.

He talked about his desire to lead a "holy life." But Joyce Carol Oates, the young English lecturer he befriended at the University of Detroit (where he began graduate school that fall), and today a well-known novelist and essayist, told T.V. LoCicero, author of a 1970 book about the killing, that from their first meeting, Wishnetsky projected “latent violence” and “the sense that the majority of people are somehow wrong and therefore contemptible.”

'If I kill myself'

Oates also recalled his telling her that, “if God did not exist, life was not worth living and he would commit suicide.” Though he denied that was his plan, he said that, were he to kill himself, “it would be in the synagogue during Sabbath services.”

During the half-year preceding the killing, Wishnetsky was in and out of psychiatrists’ offices and mental hospitals. He visited with the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Brooklyn, and was accepted for graduate study by the University of Chicago’s prestigious Committee on Social Thought.

The week before, he bought a used .32-caliber Colt revolver and dropped out of sight.

Wishnetsky entered the sanctuary that morning just as Rabbi Adler was completing his sermon, following a bar mitzvah. About 1,000 people are believed to have been present, including 125 visitors from an interfaith group, the assassin's mother, and Goldie Adler, the rabbi’s wife.

As he approached the bimah, Wishnetsky fired his pistol into the air and shouted, “This congregation is an abomination and a travesty. It has made a mockery by its phoniness and hypocrisy of the beauty and spirit of Judaism.”

Adler got everyone else off the bimah, and announced, “I know the boy. I’ll handle him.” Instead, Wishnetsky shot him, five times, the last in his head. Then he shot himself, also in the head.

Wishnetsky died four days later, in hospital, but Rabbi Adler lingered in a coma for a month. His funeral, held at the synagogue on March 13, was attended by some 9,000 mourners.