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Remembering Ira Eisenstein

Reconstructionist Judaism’s Beloved Movement Builder Dies at 94

Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, the key figure in the transformation of Mordecai Kaplan’s ideas into a denominational movement, died on June 28, 2001 at the age of 94.

Rabbi Eisenstein studied with Kaplan at the Jewish Theological Seminary and was ordained in 1931. He was the founding president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) and edited The Reconstructionist from 1935 until 1981. He was married for 62 years to Kaplan’s daughter Judith z"l, with whom he had three children.

Rabbi Ira Eisenstein at the RRC  early 1980's

Rabbi Ira Eisenstein 1983

courtesy of the RRC

As a congregational rabbi, Eisenstein served the Society for the Advancement of Judaism in New York from 1931 until 1954. He was also rabbi of Congregation Anshe Emet in Chicago, helped to found the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, Illinois, and served as rabbi of the Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North Shore in Plandome, New York. During the final years of his life, “Rabbi Ira” lived in Silver Spring, Maryland and was active in the life of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda.

Following are words of mourning, memory and appreciation from Reconstructionist leaders for whom Ira Eisenstein was rabbi, colleague, mentor and friend.

Rabbi George Driesen

A precious light on loan to the Jewish people, to the Reconstructionist Movement, to Adat Shalom, and for almost ninety-five years to the Eisenstein and Kaplan families, has been extinguished. When I heard the baleful news that Ira had suffered a “massive heart attack,” Horatio’s words about Hamlet immediately came to mind: “There cracks a noble heart.”

Nobility, uprightness, dedication to his people, brilliance, wisdom, unflagging dignity — these were the outward marks of the man. Even as a youngster, half a century ago, I sensed how the lucidity of his words stemmed from the integrity of his thinking and the complete candor with which he spoke. I saw the love he shared with Judith, the only woman he ever loved and wanted — whom he almost missed marrying because he was so shy. Literally, they made beautiful music together. It is a measure of Ira’s optimism and faith that in 1948, while the War of Independence raged in Israel and no one could foresee the outcome, the cantata they wrote for our class was based entirely on the text:

“We are fortunate. How good is our portion.
How lovely is our lot, and how beautiful is our inheritance.”

Ira’s inheritance was remarkable.

His grandfather was Judah David Eisenstein, a well known Hebrew writer and scholar who lived to be over 100. Ira’s brilliance and integrity caught the eye of Mordecai Kaplan, the great genius who founded our movement. Ira gleaned tremendous satisfaction from their very long association. Judith, of course, was Kaplan’s oldest daughter.

Together, Judith and Ira built a private fortress, filled with love, music and laughter. A fortress because their first child, Ethan Jacob Eisenstein, was born so afflicted that he has spent his entire life in an institution. A fortress because having a world-renowned genius as a father-in-law and working associate could have wreaked havoc not only with Ira and Judith but with their children as well. But it did not: Miriam and Ann tell me they never felt the slightest obligation to live up to their grandfather’s lofty ambitions. They felt free to follow their own paths, thanks largely to their father’s complete acceptance of their life choices.

Ira was a wonderful parent. Ever ahead of his time, he was a participating father who chauffeured the children and romped with them. At home he was hilariously funny and silly, which endeared him to his children and grandson. Ira had a penchant for absurdity and amused the children with jokes, stories, and games. He was a great ham and would say something absolutely absurd with a completely deadpan expression.

The house was filled with music. Ira was a lover of Gilbert and Sullivan and liked to sing the many numbers he knew by heart. Judith and Ira (who was a something of a cellist) often played duets. Later Ann, who is a violinist, joined in. Of course, everyone sang Jewish songs.

We know what a wide-ranging curiosity and fine intellect Ira had. Accuracy in Hebrew and English usage were important to him. Those of us who were privileged to share Shabbat evenings with him remember fondly his gentle but persistent insistence that when we join in a berahah (blessing) we not recite “amen,” since it is redundant. Careless thought and factual errors made him wince. As an architect of the Reconstructionist revolution, he welcomed liturgical and ritual innovation, but he was deeply pained by changes that offended Reconstructionist principles.

He had a remarkable memory, especially about people because — contrary to the impression some drew from his reserved manner — he loved people. He loved natural wonders and technology, too. When he was 89, he became computer literate and began corresponding with former students and friends, keeping up with the news in Israel and here, studying classic Jewish texts, doing research.

He was an enormously persuasive advocate. Not with fiery passion and intoxicating torrents of words; rather, Ira explained the ideas that undergirded his faith with such clarity and grace that no one could misunderstand him. Time and again as I have moved around the country, people who had met him only briefly have told me how clear, inspiring and exciting his teaching and presence had been. If I may be permitted a personal note, Ira’s impact upon me when I was an adolescent was so profound that I determined to follow in his footsteps, an ambition which, after a false start forty-seven years ago, I finally and happily fulfilled a little over two years ago.

Ira’s manner and his bearing contributed to his ability as a consummate peacemaker. Time and again I watched with wonder as, in the midst of a noisy, acrimonious debate, Ira raised his hand, rose to speak, and a hush descended. All would listen with rapt attention as he recast the tendentious issues and spelled out a position to which all sides could adhere.

With the exception of his family, nothing meant more to him than his beloved students, who vindicated his life’s work and in his later years showered him with visits, letters and messages. In his 90’s, Ira drew around him a new set of hasidim (faithful followers) at Adat Shalom, who went every week to his apartment to learn Reconstructionism, humash with Rashi, Pirkei Avot and much, much more. It is a tribute beyond measure to his vitality and intellect that he could prepare for and teach these classes, and thereby energize this wonderful group of new followers.

At the same time, we who knew him from long ago were able to gather at “the rebbe’s tish (table)” after services to imbibe his wisdom and share his memories. It was a gift beyond compare, and I shall be eternally grateful that he was on loan to us for so long.

Rabbi George Driesen (RRC ’99), a former member of the RRC Board of Governors, was a founding member of Adat Shalom and a life-long friend of the Eisenstein family.

Rabbis Dennis and Sandy Sasso

Rabbi Ira Eisenstein was one of the most influential mentors, teachers and models in our personal lives and rabbinic formation. We studied with him during our years at the RRC, and Dennis served as his associate rabbi at the Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North Shore for three years, before our coming to Indianapolis in 1977.

Shabbat evening services with Ira and Judith were unique. Judith was a noted ethno-musicologist. At the piano she would conduct congregational singing of the highest choral level (everyone had to sing!), and Ira would guide us through the trimmest of liturgies —Barehu, Shema, Aleinu and Kaddish. He enriched the service with comments and conversation on any number of subjects, from philosophic theology to current events.

We cherished our Shabbat dinners with Ira and Judy. We used these times as opportunities to get their opinions on congregational issues, intellectual and spiritual concerns. Ira guided without directing. He posed questions rather than providing answers, yet the answers we sought were in the questions he thoughtfully put before us.

There are many who will remember the power of Ira’s thinking, but what impressed us most was Ira’s living. When we lingered over wine or coffee at conventions, we often discussed ideas, but ultimately we talked about people, family. He and Judith cared not only about what we were thinking, but about how we were doing — how were the children; did we make time for ourselves and each other? There were times he was the inquiring teacher and philosopher, but he was also a loving, wise parent and grandparent who took delight in another generation’s growth.

The Hebrew word for faith, emunah, means trust, confidence. To Ira, having faith meant exhibiting a certain “attitude toward life.” He wrote: “If we believe that life is worthwhile, that it is good, that in spite of sickness and accident, in spite of poverty and war, in spite of all the sad and difficult conditions in the world, the world is a wonderful place and can be made a still better place, then we believe in God.”

Rabbis Dennis and Sandy Sasso (RRC ’74) are leaders of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Benjamin Wm. Mehlman

In late 1946 or early 1947, I was invited by a neighbor to a parlor meeting to meet and hear her rabbi, Ira Eisenstein, the rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, talk about Reconstructionism, of which I knew very little. I’d had a long period of Hebrew instruction that consisted chiefly of ritual matters and customs, but not too much more. I gladly attended the meeting, where I asked him a profusion of questions, of which Ira often told the following:

When he came home that night, Judith, his wife, asked him about the meeting. He told her, “There was a young redhead who peppered me with questions. I’ll probably never see him again.”

Little did he realize that not only would he see me again, but that we would have fifty-four years of friendship and working together. It is difficult to describe our relationship in a short memoir.

Ira not only taught me about Reconstructionism but introduced me to the civilizational elements of Judaism. He clarified some of Kaplan’s ideas that were not readily understandable. He made it possible for me to lead a rational and creative Jewish life, and he started me on a lifelong study of Jewish knowledge and other matters.

He encouraged us to create and organize the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Fellowships (now the JRF), originally consisting of four widely dispersed congregations. He created the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, with which I have had a lifelong association, and he instituted its outstanding, innovative curriculum.

I am happy that I spoke to Ira shortly before his death. I can truthfully say that except for my parents and my late, beloved wife, no person had a greater effect on my life than Ira Eisenstein.

Bill Mehlman, a retired judge, was a trusted advisor to four presidents of the RRC, including Ira Eisenstein.

Rabbi William M. Strongin

Some remembrances of Ira:

• He always called me “landsman” when he saw me, referring to our mutual Mid-Hudson Valley [New York] residence.

• At some Recon event many years ago, the organizers decided to do an 80th birthday thing for Ira. He was very uncomfortable (almost superstitious) about it, explaining that Jews didn't celebrate events prematurely.

• Once I prepared a Shabbat sermon regarding new trends in Recon, including the notion of re-embracing mystical truths. Of course, Ira and Judy turned up for that service. Afterwards, he said to me, “New trends! Why don't I just give up and become Reform?"

• Once I saw Judy speaking and Ira was paying such rapt attention, you would think that he was just meeting her for the first time, instead of being married almost 60 years. I still use this image when talking to new couples.

Rabbi Bill Strongin (RRC ’88) serves the Jewish Congregation of New Paltz, New York.

Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer, Ph.D.

Ira Eisenstein was my first rabbi. His version of Reconstructionism was the place from which I started my journey. Growing up meant finding my own way.

When I came to the RRC in 1977, I discovered spiritual nurture and excitement in my graduate work at Temple University among Christian scholars. I found myself in strong opposition to much of Reconstructionist theology and ideology as I understood it at the time. Ira never fully comprehended my passions or positions, but he was deeply respectful of me and my need to forge my own faith. I recall one conversation in which, truly bemused, he tried to talk me out of my fascination with Jewish-Christian dialogue. “You folks spend so much time arguing over which faith community is truly the chosen one. Neither is chosen, so there is nothing to argue about!”

During my fifth year at the RRC, Ira taught Contemporary Jewish Thought. All year I challenged him, arguing with every idea he presented, and generally acting much ruder than I now wish I had acted. Ira was a consummate gentleman until one afternoon when he simply lost it. “If you don’t like this, you should leave!” he shouted. A minute later, he regrouped. “I apologize. You should stay. There is room at the table for debate, for discussion. That’s what Reconstructionism is all about.”

That afternoon, my fate was sealed. The depth of my teacher’s liberalism stunned me. Wherever my theological quandaries or spiritual seeking might lead me, Reconstructionist Judaism would be the open tent to which I returned. Home.

Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer (RRC ’82) is a past president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and currently heads the Multifaith Studies and Initiatives Program at RRC.

Rabbi David Teutsch, Ph.D.

My personal encounters with Ira were almost entirely those of a rabbinic executive with his emeritus rabbi. He was consistently warm and supportive, and when he disagreed with me, he did so without ever suggesting that he expected me to change just because he held a different view. And he never hinted that our disagreements might be bad for our relationship. On the contrary — when things were tough, he and Judy were more voluble in their support.

One could always ask for the history of an issue, then for Ira’s usually penetrating analysis, and finally his opinion, learn all one could, and not feel bound to his conclusion. He was always genuinely glad to be helpful — and without strings attached. And he never supported a faction that wanted to change a decision even when he disagreed with the decision. He understood that our larger goal of building the movement could only succeed if we worked together.

When I visited the Eisensteins in Woodstock in the early 1980s, the challenges facing our movement were enormous and the conflicts were debilitating. Ira said to me that one of the things he had learned is that “burnout comes not from hard work but from heartache.” That is a thought to which I have frequently returned.

Ira’s talent for shepping naches from his students and successors was remarkable. Not only did he appreciate the progress, he embraced much of the ideological change. His delight and caring were palpable. He was the epitome of growing older without aging. His delight in life, his effort to understand, to empathize, to adapt have modeled for me a precious way of being in the world.

Rabbi David Teutsch is a past president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and currently serves as Louis and Myra Wiener Professor of Contemporary Jewish Civilization; Chair, Department of Contemporary Jewish Civilization; Director, Levin-Lieber Program in Jewish Ethics at RRC.



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