Leo Trepp was born on March 4, 1913 in Mainz, Germany. He was the son of Maier und Selma Trepp, née Hirschberger, both of Germany. From early childhood on, he was educated as a deeply religious person and equally exposed to general culture (literature, art, music, life) by his parents.
Upon attending Jewish elementary school for three years, he was educated for nine years at high school and in 1931 obtained his certificate allowing him to attend university.
He studied philosophy and humanities at the Universities of Frankfurt, Berlin and Würzburg, and obtained his Doctorate of Philosophy from the latter in 1935. At the same time, he studied at the Talmud Academy of Frankfurt and the Rabbinical Seminary of Berlin, where he was ordained in 1936.
In 1936, he accepted a call as Rabbi of the State of Oldenburg in Northern Germany, and became Landesrabbiner, because the Jews of this state were in dire distress on account of their Nazi government. His experiences were brutal, but he could help the Jews of Oldenburg.
In 1938, he married Miriam de Haas, daughter of his departed predecessor. She died in San Rafael, California, in December 1999.
Also in 1938, during the Pogrom Night, he was arrested, his synagogues throughout the state were burnt down and he was transported to the Concentration Camp of Sachsenhausen, where the living conditions were inhuman.
Through the services of the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, who knew him, he was granted a one-year immigration visa to England, and was therefore released from the Concentration Camp with the provision that he would leave Germany within two weeks, which he did.
During this time, he was also able to save the life of his brother by bringing him to England.
When his immigration visa to the United States was granted to him, he was happy to be admitted to the land of his hopes. He and his wife spent days traveling over the Ocean infested by German submarines.
In January 1940, he arrived in Boston, Massachusetts, and soon became a member of the clergy association. Soon, he also spoke on the radio on a regular basis. On the Sunday after the outbreak of the War, a community service was held in the Anglican Church and he was chosen to give the sermon and lead the community in prayer for America.
His first rabbinical position was in Greenfield, Massachusetts, a typical New England town, whose citizens gave him the best possible education on American Democracy. After a brief stay as Rabbi at Newport News (where he could not stand the whites’ racist attitude against African Americans), he accepted a position as the Rabbi of a congregation at Somerville, Massachusetts, which gave him the opportunity of enrolling at Harvard University. During the summer of 1945, he and his wife were sworn in as citizens of the United States. It was one of the happiest moments of his life. In 1946, he accepted a call to Tacoma, Washington, and his daughter Susan was born there in 1947.
Following his idea, the Jews of Tacoma organized a gigantic brotherhood rally at which Orson Welles was speaking. One of his projects was an effort of finding cooperation between religion and scientific psychology (in collaboration with professors of the University of Washington in Seattle) – a subject his friend Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman of Boston had popularized in his national bestseller “Peace of Mind”. In 1948, he accepted a call to the newly created Jewish congregation at Berkeley, California, as its first full-time Rabbi. In 1951, he consecrated the congregation’s first synagogue. He studied at the University of California and– and on recommendation received a call from Napa College to teach Philosophy and Humanities. In 1951, he accepted the call, and remained on the active faculty of the College until 1983. He made time available to develop new Jewish congregations, all of which were very poor then. Two examples may suffice:
- Santa Rosa, California, where he served for 10 years as its founding Rabbi, leading the congregation to high success. When he left, he was awarded honorary membership in the congregation. He also gave evening courses at Santa Rosa Jr. College.
- Eureka, California, may serve as another example. He was called by 14 people, engaged in building up a congregation. Under his guidance, the synagogue was built and consecrated by him. When he left, he was elected “Rabbi emeritus”.
Both congregations are now flourishing with full-time Rabbis.
Subsequently, he served as the Jewish chaplain of the Veterans Home of California at Yountville, the largest in the United States – first as volunteer, then as employee. There, he served all veterans, not only Jews. His great achievement, however, was the establishment of a synagogue within the Home. He prevailed on the administration to provide the room and on his own efforts got collections from wide circles for the precious, handmade furnishings, the Torah scrolls, etc. The chapel was to bear his name.
When he retired and moved to the Californian Bay Area, he received a certificate of gratitude from the Legislature in acknowledgement of his work at the Home.
On December 15th, 1999 his wife Miriam died. Her very good friend, the young widow Gunda Wöbken-Ekert, first became a strong source of psychological support for him, and in 2000, she became his new life partner and then, his second wife.
One of the functions he considered tremendously important was lecturing widely in cities and communities of Germany. He always believed that the best way to prevent new anti-Semitism is to provide knowledge about Judaism and the ethics and philosophy of Jewish people. This is in accordance with his conviction that it is essential to teach Judaism through the written word.
In 1981, he was invited by German leaders to spend some time each year there to teach Judaism in universities and communities. He accepted, and ever since has taught one semester annually in Germany. He became honorary professor of Judaism at the University of Mainz, and was distinguished as Honorary Senator of the University, a very rare honor. Since then, he has additionally been part of the faculties of the Universities of Frankfurt/Main, of Berlin and of Oldenburg. He has lectured at the Universities of Hamburg, Freiburg, Heidelberg, Greifswald and others, and has delivered lectures and spoken about Jewish religion and philosophy in many places.
Further biographical information:
This online resource from the Leo Baeck Institute Archives in New York shows original family documents of the Trepp family starting in the 16th century. Furthermore, it contains the manuscript “Oldenburg – Mirror of Jewish Destiny”, which was later published as the German-speaking edition “Die Oldenburger Judenschaft”. Furthermore, documents about Mainz and its Minhagim are available (in German).