At a seminar hosted about two decades ago by the American Jewish Committee for representatives of the major denominations of Judaism, professor-author-activist Leonard Fein mentioned that he had a still-single daughter.
Someone in the audience, from the Modern Orthodox community, informed Fein and the other seminar participants that he had a son who also was not married.
“Maybe we should spend some more time together,” Fein countered, to everyone’s delight — in other words, maybe the fathers could arrange a shidduch.
Fein, who died at 80 on Aug. 14 in Watertown, Mass., was not interested in making a match but in making a point, said Steven Bayme, director of the AJC’s Contemporary Jewish Life Department, who took part in that seminar. Fein’s “symbolic statement” was that the gap between the Jews who are members of different branches of the faith is not as large as often feared.
“Clearly, he was an identified Reform Jew … [with a] willingness to work across denominational, political lines,” Bayme said.
Fein, who headed the Reform movement’s Commission on Social Justice, was remembered this week as a prod for social action, a scholar and prolific writer, a liberal Zionist and leading proponent of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem.
Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, who helped found Moment magazine with Fein in 1975, said, “He was always and totally committed to whatever was Jewish.” Fein served as the magazine’s editor for its first 13 years.
With his husky voice and articulate message on improving Jewish life by doing good for one’s fellow man, he was a popular lecturer in Jewish communities around the country for decades, long after he taught at MIT and Brandeis University.
In a prepared statement, J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami called Fein “a singular voice of conscience for the Jewish people … a righteous man, a true believer in the Jewish principle of tikkun olam [repairing the world]. Throughout his life, Leibel [as he was known to friends by his Yiddish name] was unafraid to wrestle with the toughest questions facing the Jewish people and Israel.”
Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service, called Fein “a true progressive visionary in American Jewish life.” She noted that he was “a brilliant man who was the founder and godfather of Jewish social justice in the 20th and 21st century, who made a real difference with more people and more organizations than we can ever imagine.”
A native of New York City, Fein grew up in the Bronx, and later lived in Baltimore, Winnipeg, Canada, and Bridgeport, Conn. As a child he contracted polio, which left him with muscle weakness and fatigue.
He attended high school in Baltimore, graduated from the University of Chicago, spent a year in Israel, then earned a Ph.D. in political science from Michigan State University. He taught in the political science department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and later taught Jewish studies at Brandeis University.
His books include “Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent’s Story of Love, Loss and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2004), on the death of his daughter, Nomi, in 1996, and “Where Are We? The Inner Life of America’s Jews” (Harper & Row, 1989). He was a contributor to a number of publications and columnist for The Forward up until his death.
Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The Jewish Week, recalled Fein’s efforts during his tenure at Moment to seek out and mentor young writers in the Jewish community. “He was a caring and perceptive editor and he gave us a voice to express a wide range of views. Moment was the platform for creative thinking on some age-old issues, from tzedakah to Jewish education to the Mideast.”
Fein once speculated on what one statement, if any, all Jews, past and present, would agree on. “I am convinced that there is only one statement that meets the test, that all of us know as truth: This world is not working the way it was supposed to,” he wrote. “And very many of us accept as well the corollary statement: To be a Jew is to know that you are bound, somehow, to help repair this world.”
Fein is survived by a brother, Rashi, two daughters, Rachel and Jessie and five grandchildren.