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Remembering Leonard Fein

Like so many people I know, my first introduction to Leonard “Leibel” Fein was as a younger activist in the Jewish community who heard him speak and suddenly heard articulated with a passion and a brilliance that I could never have attempted, all the reasons why I wanted to change the world.

Leibel was first and foremost a visionary – someone who saw what was broken in our world and saw with equal clarity how to repair it. More important, he was a man who knew how to make real that vision – to give it life, to bring not only inspiration but hope to people who struggle against terrible circumstances. MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, is surely the remarkable legacy of his vision and his determination to see it realized.

Leibel was not only the visionary founder of MAZON – he was our inspiration, our touchstone, our mentor, our friend.

When I joined MAZON in 2011 as its President & CEO, Leibel took me out to dinner during my first week on the job. I was so nervous. It’s not just that I was going to have dinner with a man who was a luminary among Jewish thinkers and writers, someone I venerated and who seemed larger than life to me, but he had asked me to share MY vision for the future of MAZON.

Those who know Leibel will not be surprised to learn that he picked an amazing restaurant – one of those cool, hip new takes on old cuisine and we spent the first 10 minutes of our time together talking about food – Leibel had a passion for life and all its pleasures, and his pleasure was infectious. I felt at ease at once. As we spoke about MAZON, its founding, his original vision, the challenges and opportunities of the years since then and what I hoped to do in the future, he lit up. His excitement for new ideas, his openness to directions he had not yet contemplated for his “baby” and his support for me and my vision was overwhelming. He put his trust in me – no small thing for me to realize of course and a powerful demonstration of why he was such a great man – he mentored and appreciated others. He saw the potential in me and in so many of my colleagues in the Jewish social justice world. He never felt threatened by encouraging leadership in others, he saw it as the means to achieving all he hoped to see in his lifetime.

As news of his death spread, I have heard from dozens of leaders of organizations across the United States who credit him as their inspiration, their guide, their role model – not just at the outset of their careers but this week, last month, last year. He never stopped writing, teaching and prodding all of us to do more, to be more, to live our Jewish ideals in all we do. Leibel leaves behind an incomparable legacy of commitment to creating a just world, motivated not simply by doing what’s “right,” but by his belief that working to make the world a better place was an inherently “Jewish” thing to do.

I feel both the privilege and the obligation to make certain that I am all that I can be, and that MAZON lives up to the vision Leibel had for it in 1985. His confidence in me will sustain me in these days of loss and inspire me in the years to come. I will miss him.

May his memory be for a blessing. 

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