Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin, a Reform Judaism leader who founded and guided Stephen Wise Temple from modest beginnings to one of the world’s largest Reform congregations, died Friday evening (Jan. 26) at his home in Palm Springs, CA, surrounded by his family. He died of natural causes at 97.
Born and raised in Brooklyn (New York), the son of a respected scholar and ardent Zionist, he moved to Los Angeles in 1954 to establish the California branch of Hebrew Union College and served as the 11-state regional director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
In 1964, he and a nucleus of 35 families founded Stephen Wise Temple on a striking 18-acre mountain site situated between the city’s two largest Jewish population centers, the Westside and San Fernando Valley.
To prepare the site, contractors literally had to move a mountain by lowering its height, Zeldin told the Journal in a 2004 interview. “We had no place for the dirt, so I invited the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), which was then on Sunset Blvd, to buy the property next door. And we pushed a million cubic yards of dirt into the hole to make it a leveled piece of property.”
As his lasting legacy, Zeldin left a thriving congregation and school system, now numbering some 4,800 members and students. The congregation is guided by five rabbis and two cantors.
The impact of his personality and organizing skill ranged well beyond the Jewish community and the Los Angeles area. Close friends, including former California governor Gray Davis, described Zeldin as combining the abilities of a committed educator, hard-driving business executive and nonpareil persuader, who believed that a synagogue had to serve its members from pre-birth to post-death.
After meeting Zeldin in 1981, Davis, though a Catholic, was so taken by the rabbi’s personality that he attended High Holiday services at Stephen Wise Temple for 34 straight years.
Stephen Wise Senior Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback observed, “I was amazed and inspired by Rabbi Zeldin’s impact on the lives of so many members of our community. His commitment to and love for his congregation and his deep passion for finding creative ways to inspire in them a love of Judaism, Jewish community and Israel filled me with awe. What he did for our congregation, for the Los Angeles community, and, more broadly, for the Jewish people, was truly extraordinary.”
One of Zeldin’s closest collaborators for half a century was Metuka Benjamin, now president of the Milken Community Schools, who joined the rabbi in establishing an extensive day school system in a Reform setting, consisting of a pre-school, elementary school and community high school.
In an extended interview, Benjamin described Zeldin as possessing “an iron fist in a silk glove. He was, in effect, the head of a corporation as well as a prodigious fundraiser – nobody ever said no to him.”
He was also a hands-on boss, from always picking up stray pieces of trash on campus to driving a bus to the temple’s camp.
From the beginning, Zeldin emphasized that schools were on the frontlines of Jewish continuity and at Stephen Wise, he said, “We built the school before we built the temple.”
Zeldin was a committed Zionist, a friend of Israeli prime ministers and other leaders, who enjoyed impressing Israeli visitors by the Jewish knowledge and fluent Hebrew of his students.
Among the many financial patrons recruited by Zeldin, none played a larger role than Lowell Milken, co-founder and chairman of the Milken Family Foundation.
In an interview, Milken described the rabbi as “The most transforming individual I have met in my lifetime…He had the ability to make others share in his vision and thus transform vision into reality.
“He was great at lightening your wallet but in such a way that in the end you considered it an honor.”
As a lay leader at Stephen Wise Temple, business executive David Smith was closely involved in bringing its educational goal to fruition.
“Rabbi Zeldin always had a clear picture where he wanted to go,” Smith said. “Some people complained that he didn’t listen to what they were saying. However, he did listen, though he was never sidetracked from where he was going.”
One piece of advice Zeldin passed on to Smith was “Never call for a vote unless you know the outcome…The board (of directors) has only one decision to make, whether to keep me or to fire me.”
Zeldin transferred his acumen to his champion-level chess game (“I try to think three moves ahead,” he used to say) and his vigor and enthusiasm to the golf course.
Friends on a first-name basis with Zeldin always addressed his as “Shy,” derived from Yeshayahu, the Hebrew name for Isaiah, and frequently shortened to the nickname Shy. From that it followed that insiders referred to the temple’s hilltop location as “Mount Shynai,” as a tribute to its founding rabbi.
Zeldin retired as senior rabbi at Stephen Wise Temple in 1990, but remained actively involved with the congregation throughout his life.
Florence Zeldin, who was married to the rabbi for 68 years, died in 2012.
Services will be held Monday (Jan. 29) at 11 a.m. at Stephen Wise Temple, with Rabbi Eli Herscher, who served as Zeldin’s immediate successor as Wise Temple’s senior rabbi, will deliver a eulogy. Interment will be at Eden Memorial Park.
Shiva will be held at Monday at the Temple at 7 p.m., followed by services and a reception.
Zeldin is survived by his children Joel Zeldin (Karen) and Michael Zeldin (Terry); brother Bernard Zeldin; five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
In lieu of flowers, mourners may wish to make donations to Stephen Wise Temple and Schools to establish the Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin Rabbinic Chair. Or to Hebrew Union College, to establish a scholarship fund in his name.