Try 1 month for 99¢

The end of a career for social justice activist Rabbi Henry Jay Karp is in sight as he will retire next month with his wife, Cantor Gail Karp.

The Karps have served a combined 62 years at Temple Emanuel, Davenport, he as rabbi, and Gail as cantor, a role that leads worship, officiates at life cycle events, teaches adults and children, runs synagogue music programs and offers pastoral care.

As a young couple in 1985, they moved with their two babies from California to Davenport — and never left. As transplants, they enjoy the Midwest; Henry was raised in New York City, and Gail is from Southfield, a suburb of Detroit.

Henry was 10 years old when he decided to become a rabbi. His parents were active in their faith, and Henry was always interested in reform Judaism, even teaching it to other teens when he was in Boy Scouts.

A lion for social justice in the Quad-Cities, Henry follows the Torah, the most sacred part of Judaism. The Torah speaks through the Prophets and the rabbi heeds the teachings.

Jews learned about slavery in Egypt and know what it's like to be an outsider, he said. All that was recharged during World War II and the Holocaust.

Social justice, indeed, is the heart and soul of Judaism, an engine for equity, he said.

The Karps met while in seminary, and it was love at first sight. "Four days after we met, we were engaged," Gail said. He was 24 years old; she was 19.

They married in 1975 and Henry got his first "solo pulpit" in Lincoln, Nebraska.

They moved west, and worked for five years in Lincoln, where their eldest child, daughter Shira, was  born. But Lincoln had a small Jewish congregation, and the Karps ended up moving to Silicon Valley in northern California.

After a few years there, they said, they made great friends but didn't like the lifestyle. Their second child, Josh, was born in California. Less than two years later, he was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.

The Karps learned of an opening at Temple Emanuel, and they moved again. They immediately got a taste of "Midwest nice" when their neighbors brought cakes to their home while they moved in.

"It is easy to live here," Gail said. 

"We had a good quality of life, and a good congregation, and there was no reason to move," Henry said. Their third and final child, daughter Helene, was born in Davenport.

The couple really decided to stay in the Quad-Cities after they experienced a  "Say No to Hate Rally" at Sacred Heart Cathedral, Davenport.

Before the 1994 rally, Davenport was the site of neo-Nazi activities, including a cross burning, and destruction of mailboxes at Jewish homes ("We lost three or four of them," Gail said.)

One incident that sticks in their minds was when the Jewish community arranged a Davenport showing of the 1993 film, "Schindler's List." But the Karps received a postcard claiming that the site of the showing would be bombed and Jewish homes attacked.

Henry Karp called Davenport police, who partnered with the FBI. Protection was offered to the movie theater, the temple and Jewish homes.

That was followed by a cross burning in western Davenport.

At that point, representatives of the Catholic Diocese of Davenport contacted Karp, and plans were made for an anti-hate rally. Both Henry and Gail were greatly moved: More than 1,500 people jammed into Davenport's Sacred Heart Cathedral and spoke against hatred.

"People here do care about their fellow citizens," Gail said. 

Henry speaks with appreciation of the generous Temple Emanuel congregation, whose support made it possible for him to take two trips several years ago. One was to Poland, which just had opened to tourism, and the other was to the Soviet Union. Both were religious tours, and "very meaningful," he said.

"That was just the culture of the congregation," Gail said.

Like other religious faiths around the United States, the Jewish community has dwindled in the Quad-Cities. Gail's responsibilities as cantor were reduced. Seven years ago, she took a job at the Rock Island Arsenal, working for a while in Detroit. She recently moved back.

Gail, 62, and Henry, 67, have been given "emeritus" status by the Temple Emanuel congregation.

Henry will continue to have "pulpit privileges' in Davenport, but will give his successor time alone, without interfering. He expects an interim rabbi to be named.

Both Karps will miss aspects of their spiritual roles, especially working with the Jewish children.

"They are just a lot of fun," Henry said.

Gail still works at the Rock Island Arsenal, and Henry will continue his adjunct professorship at St. Ambrose University, Davenport.

He currently has a broken arm but he plans to begin regular exercise, walking. He will stay active with his e-cards; he sends out around 1,000 of them, regularly.

A few years ago, the Karp children left the area and the couple moved to a condo in Davenport. Helene is in Minnesota, Josh in Iowa City, and Shira in Louisville, Kentucky.

Many of Henry's seminary friends have retired, and "I just know it's the right time," he said. "The spark is not as bright as it was."

Subscribe to Breaking News

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.