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Remembering Ira Eisenstein (continued)

 

Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, the key figure in the transformation of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan's ideas into a denominational movement, died on June 28th at the age of 94. In our Autumn issue, we offered words of mourning, memory and appreciation from Reconstructionist leaders for whom Ira Eisenstein was rabbi, colleague, mentor and friend. More words of remembrance are offered below.

Rabbi Ira Eisenstein
 early 1990s  courtesy of the RRC

Rabbi Ira Eisenstein


Rabbi Bob Gluck

I first came to know Ira as Judith's husband. She and I were friends, thanks to shared musical interests. Ira was the warm, but quiet and reserved, host who met me at the front doorway of their Woodstock home. He would usher me into the living room, bring tea, and then retire to another part of the house. Towards the end of each visit, Judith would call Ira in, and we would chat. Eventually, this led to extended conversations about philosophy and Judaism. Over time, Ira became my intellectual mentor. I soon had two relationships within that family, each quite independent of the other.

I will always remember Ira's charm and grace, his kindness and unassuming manner -- and, of course, his searching mind and openness to new ideas. But when I really think about it, Ira's gift to me is what he brought to Reconstructionist thought. The hallmark of his approach is deeply self-reflective intellectual honesty. Ira believed that we should do and say only what we truly mean, including when we approach Jewish practice. His rigor is sometimes confused with lack of feeling. It was anything but that. But he wanted to remind us that when we sit back and feel overly comfortable with whatever we are doing, it is likely that we are not inquiring deeply enough. Ira insisted that we never stop thinking. An inquiring mind and so much love and respect for people ‹ who embodied that better than Ira?

Rabbi Bob Gluck (RRC'89) has just completed an MFA in Electronic Arts at Rensselaer. He teaches electronic music at the University at Albany.

Rabbi Jonathan Kligler

I was nervous when I first arrived in Woodstock 13 years ago. I was an inexperienced rabbinical student and had been hired to lead the Woodstock Jewish Congregation. My anxiety was compounded by the fact that as I led my first Rosh Hashanah services, sitting in the congregation would be Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, the founder of my rabbinical seminary and foremost living proponent of the Reconstructionist philosophy that I espoused! And his wife Judith was the daughter of the late Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the creator of the Reconstructionist approach to Judaism and one of the most important American Jewish figures of the 20th century. Why, I moaned to myself, did they have to live here?

I should never have worried. Ira and Judith embraced me and my family with a warmth that made us feel as if we had come home. Ira became my mentor, my teacher, my role model, and my friend. Our vibrant, wide ranging conversations would last for hours. His experiences covered most of the century, and his remarkable mind and memory made him a living resource library of not only Judaism but of the modern world. Ira would challenge me to think clearly without ever making me feel attacked or undermined. His advice was always sage, yet unpretentious. He embodied integrity, intelligence, and commitment to principle. As a young rabbi I came to trust that if I brought to Ira the concerns and confusions weighing me down, he would leaven them all with wit and the wisdom of years, and with the irrepressible delight and passion with which he embraced life.

Thanks to Ira's presence in Woodstock, therefore, instead of this young rabbi feeling isolated I had the best imaginable resource. But my debt to Ira goes much deeper than that. In 1968 Ira founded the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College on a wing and a prayer, determined to create an institution where questioning Jews like myself could study. This new seminary required no litmus test of belief or certainty for its applicants; if we shared a love of Judaism and the Jewish people, a passion for clear thinking, and a willingness to understand life and therefore Judaism as always in a process of change and becoming, then we were in the right place. Ira felt that for Judaism to flourish, the bold experiment of Reconstructionism was essential. As a man in his early sixties, he put all of his energy and assets into the rabbinical college, a brand new and completely risky undertaking. That was Ira's way: to live his beliefs. And were it not for his vision and tenacity, I probably would not be a rabbi today. Ira forged the path that made it possible for me and hundreds of other searching Jews to find their calling in the revitalization of Jewish life. In turn we have had the opportunity to share his vision with thousands and thousands of others. I am forever in his debt.

Ninety-four years is a good, long run, and every additional year with Ira in my life was a bonus. But, oh, I wish there was more time with this vibrant, wise giant of a man. I'll miss you, Ira.

Rabbi Jonathan Kligler (RRC'89) is on sabbatical leave from the Woodstock Congregation in Woodstock, New York.

Lillian S. Kaplan

I think I first met Ira at Camp Cejwin some time in the '30s. Cejwin was a Reconstructionist-oriented camp, founded and directed by Al Schoolman, my uncle, a disciple of Mordecai Kaplan. Our activities included services and Jewish studies and Ira was one of our teachers. Through the years, I saw Ira occasionally at some function or other at some place or other.

In 1949-50, I was working in Israel. Ira, Judy and their two daughters came to spend Ira's sabbatical. Judy had to leave with Miriam and Ann because of illness, but Ira stayed on. He had his car in Israel, and in May, shortly before he was to return to the States, Ira invited a friend and me to join him on a tour of the Galil and some of the Emek. We spent nine memorable days visiting kibbutzim and other places of interest. We made a pact at the outset that we were to have no compulsions about where or when to go, that this was to be a leisurely trip. And that it was -- we had a wonderful time that I will never forget.

Later, Ira officiated at my wedding.

In 1962, Ira spoke in the Washington, D.C. area. This was the catalyst for our organizing the Reconstructionist Havurah of Greater Washington. Then, after moving to the area, Ira became a member of the Havurah as well as of Adat Shalom, where he was our "senior scholar" and did some (adult) teaching, which he obviously enjoyed. Before he died, we were starting to plan the celebration of his 95th birthday. We will miss him terribly.

Lillian S. Kaplan is a former president of the JRF and a member of the Reconstructionist Prayerbook Commission.

Howard Lewis

In the 1980s, a literary agent my wife Martha and I worked with ran a Jewish discussion group made up of the sort of New Yorkers who wrote for -- or at least quoted from -- Commentary, Partisan Review, and the New York Review of Books. She asked us, members of the Woodstock Havurah, to convey her invitation to Ira to speak about Reconstructionism.

Ira had once told us, "A good teacher's like a cow. The more milk a calf needs, the more a cow will give." He and Judith not only accepted but made a special trip to the city, even staying overnight at a hotel.

We took them to the agent's Central Park West apartment. For this crowd of Upper West Side intellectuals, discussion was a form of guerrilla warfare. Ira was under attack almost as soon as he opened his mouth. Verbal grenades were lobbed at him of the caliber of, "So Reconstructionism is really Fast-Food Judaism!"

Ira fielded all the insults with dignity and authority. Meanwhile, we cringed with embarrassment over having exposed him to such rudeness. At the end of the evening we apologized to him. "Not at all," Ira replied. "I thank you for the opportunity to teach a difficult class."

Howard and Martha Lewis were founding members, in 1981, of the Woodstock Reconstructionist Havurah.

 

Type: RT Article

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