Rabbi Fields Passes Torch of Leadership

Aside from being the oldest and most architecturally magnificent synagogue in Los Angeles, Wilshire Boulevard Temple may be remembered for another historic accomplishment: possibly the smoothest transition between a retiring rabbi and new rabbi in the annals of synagogue history.

When Rabbi Harvey Fields becomes rabbi emeritus on June 1, after serving for 21 years, Rabbi Steven Leder will succeed him — a transition the two have been preparing for, along with the staff and the board, for the past three years.

"It is a combination of luck and talent," said Bruce Friedman, incoming Wilshire Boulevard Temple president, who has been on the board for 10 years and helped engineer the transition. "There was absolutely incredible mentoring and an immense amount of grace and diplomacy on the part of Rabbi Fields, in terms of stepping aside to make room for Rabbi Leder to move ahead."

Fields, an eminent fundraiser, spearheaded the building of the $35 million Audrey and Sydney Irmas Campus at Olympic Boulevard and Barrington Avenue, establishing a crucial West Los Angeles presence to supplement the temple’s historic Edgar F. Magnin Campus on Wilshire near Western Avenue.

"You wake up one day," said the 67-year-old Fields in an interview at his Beverly Hills home, "and find that you are the rabbi of a congregation that has become a leaky boat, and you face the question of: Do I want to leave my successor a steadily diminishing congregation, simply because we are out of the geographic reach of our members, or do I push forward to create a whole new future?"

In the six years since the Audrey and Sidney Irmas Campus was completed, membership has gone from 1,900 families to 2,600.

The blending of time-honored traditions with innovative experiments has become a hallmark of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, which was founded when Abraham Lincoln was president in 1862, and where one rabbi, Edgar F. Magnin, served for 69 years, until 1984.

"There were those in the congregation that felt the temple would suffer with the retirement of Rabbi Magnin, but Rabbi Fields handled that extraordinarily well by moving the temple gradually into the last half of the 20th century," said Lionel Bell, temple president 1987-1991, whose parents were members when he was born in 1926.

As the Reform movement adopted more Hebrew and ritual observances in the past decade, Fields eased into more traditional practices at Wilshire Boulevard — "where you would least expect it," Bell said.

"Rabbi Fields brought the temple around to what is today a very progressive Reform synagogue, with outstanding leadership and programming covering a far greater depth in practice of Judaism than it’s ever had before," Bell said.

Fields introduced more music into the services, hiring Don Gurney in 1999 as the first cantor in the temple’s history. He crafted more adult learning opportunities and put together committees to rewrite the temple’s prayer book, High Holiday machzor and the hagaddah.

But even as some of the trappings of classical Reform fell away, core principals remained, such as the commitment to social justice and interfaith dialogue — areas where Fields has earned a national reputation.

Fields was a key player in setting up Hopenet, a network of religious institution in the Mid-Wilshire corridor that feeds about 200 people every Sunday out of the temple, and provides affordable housing, clothing and furnishings.

Active in the national Reform movement and Israel causes, Fields is a revered figure in the City of Los Angeles. On June 18, a breakfast will be held in Fields’ honor at the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, co-sponsored by the National Conference for Community and Justice, the Interreligious Council of Southern California, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and the Jewish Community Relations Council of The Jewish Federation — all organizations in which Fields has been president.

Fields and his wife, Sybil, have three children and five grandchildren. He was honored in June 1998 as Father of the Year by the Los Angeles Father’s Day Council.

The rabbi said he is looking forward to the time he can spend with his family when he retires, including his daughter and her family in Israel. He plans to work on a new Commentary on the Prophets, to supplement his popular three-volume Commentary on the Torah, as well as a historical novel on his great-grandfather’s settlement in a farming community in Dakota in the 1880s.

Fields, who is a diabetic, albeit in very good health, said he wanted to retire before he ran himself down with the exigencies of running a huge organization.

"I wanted to see really significant quality in the time I have for my next adventure," he said, "and I just felt that the timing was right.