Rabbi Isaac Trainin, a few years out of yeshiva in Brooklyn, didn’t think he had a long future in the Jewish communal world when he was approached to head the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies’ department of religious affairs in 1952. He was a lone religious voice in a largely secular organization.
"There were no mezuzahs on any doors," he recalls. "I was the only yarmulke in the building," then located on West 47th Street, in the Diamond District.
The federation, which eventually merged into today’s UJA-Federation, incorporated more features of Jewish tradition into its mission.
And Rabbi Trainin remained in Jewish communal work.
The rabbi, 83, who retired from UJA-Federation in 1986 and founded the independent Bikur Cholim Coordinating Council, which is named for him, marked his 50th year in the communal field in September. He was honored for his career at the coordinating council’s 15th annual bikur cholim conference last Sunday at UJA-Federation headquarters in Manhattan.
"I didn’t think I would last at all" a half-century ago, Rabbi Trainin says. "I was going to practice law."
But he pushed the Jewish community into dealing with a swath of overlooked issues (drugs, mental health, gambling, poverty) and his crusty persuasiveness won the support of Jewish community leaders.
After stepping down from UJA-Federation, Rabbi Trainin formed its task force on bikur cholim into a separate organization. The coordinating council stresses the importance of visiting the sick, trains volunteers and runs the annual conference.
"I didn’t want to retire. I wanted to be busy," Rabbi Trainin says. "To me, bikur cholim is one of the most important mitzvot."
In 1999 he left his full-time work at the coordinating council, agreeing to remain as consultant for five years. He calls that his "second retirement." Rabbi Trainin turned the organization over to the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services to ensure its continuity. "No one lives forever," he says.
Rabbi Trainin still goes to his office several times a week. "I walk to work every day: four miles a day." At work on his seventh volume of memoirs, he maintains a regular schedule of Jewish learning and is an avid film watcher. The rabbi estimates that he and his wife, Frances, "own about 6,000 movies."
Last week’s conference at UJA-Federation had a special significance for Rabbi Trainin. "I think I was born before 80 percent of the people in UJA-Federation were born," he says.
Rabbi Trainin is looking forward to another anniversary. In March he and Frances will, "God willing," celebrate their 60th anniversary.