January 24, 2019

How Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin Transformed Jewish Education in Los Angeles

Photo from Facebook

Congregants at Stephen S. Wise Temple will remember Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin, who died last week at 97, as the rabbi who celebrated with them, mourned with them, officiated at their weddings, presided at b’nai mitzvah, and was present at countless moments in their religious lives. Indeed, he was a rabbi who was larger than life and whose generosity of spirit, time and love permeated his entire being. Family members will remember him as Grandpa Shy, the grandfather who lovingly listened, cared, gave sage advice, adored and was filled with pride. And many remember his legacy of Judaism and Jewish education.

I was neither a congregant nor a student. I may have been one of the few people at Zeldin’s funeral who was neither a relative, friend, nor someone with a personal connection to the glorious institutions he built.  I’m a historian and, for the past three years, have devoted my research to the history of Jewish education in Los Angeles. My doctoral dissertation focused on the development of day schools in Los Angeles. And in that story, Zeldin stands out as one of the greatest figures.

Many people are familiar with the almost mythical story of how Zeldin took 35 families from Temple Emanuel to form a new congregation. While people describe that journey in matter-of-fact terms — from first using space in a church, then eventually making their way to the hilltop where Stephen S. Wise Temple sits today.

But it wasn’t only a remarkable feat, but the manifestation of a vision. This new institution would bridge the city’s Jews by being a midway point between the city and the San Fernando Valley. It would offer much more than just prayer services. The “shul with a pool” would provide programming for the youngest children, the elderly, and every age group in between.

Perhaps most importantly to Zeldin, it educated thousands of students in its day schools (not to mention its religious schools and other educational programs) at a time when Reform day schools were just starting to emerge and few non-Orthodox day schools existed in Los Angeles. That the Reform movement did not officially support day schools until 1985 did not hinder Zeldin’s determination.

Zeldin was a pioneer, a social entrepreneur before the phrase even existed. He saw a need and he filled it. He had a conviction and he made it a reality. And yet Zeldin was no wizard. He did not hide behind curtains. He was present at the board meetings, the staff meetings, the dinner meetings and everything else. He delivered reports, shared his dreams and offered words of Torah. He lived and breathed not only his institution but everything he believed it stood for.

The grandeur that Zeldin built cannot be measured in acreage or in dollars raised. It cannot be understood even through the staff he hired or the educators he trained. Using the word visionary to describe him isn’t an exaggeration, nor is it cliché. And while there is plenty of evidence to describe Zeldin’s success, there is little evidence to aid in understanding it. As Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback said in his eulogy, Zeldin simply willed institutions into being, whether it was his synagogue, the West Coast branch of Hebrew Union College or his many schools.

Zeldin was the last of a generation of giants — rabbis who transformed the face and the fate of the Los Angeles Jewish community and whose commitment to, and passion for, Jewish education drove their every move. These leaders — among them Rabbi Jacob Pressman and Rabbi Harold Schulweis — dismissed denominational differences in the interest of Jewish continuity. They collaborated on projects, sought advice from one another and built the institutions that anchor Los Angeles’ Jewish community today.

Zeldin was a pioneer, a social entrepreneur before the phrase even existed. He saw a need and he filled it.

In the late 1980s, one of the city’s two non-Orthodox Jewish high schools, Golda Meir Academy, was struggling. In contrast, Zeldin’s elementary and nursery schools had been flourishing for over ten years. When the Golda Meir board and the Bureau of Jewish Education brought Zeldin into the discussions about the future of the school, he became a partner in the communal effort, eventually bringing the school under the umbrella of Stephen S. Wise’s Temple, which even assumed its financial burden. Within a few years, he had turned around the fate of the school, today known as Milken Community Schools. The politics (denominational and otherwise) were almost irrelevant. He had secured his own dream of educating Jewish children in a day school from nursery through twelfth grade.

So while congregants and family will hold memories of Zeldin near, this historian will also remember Zeldin as larger than life. Truly, Zeldin was an institution builder, a risk taker and change maker, a giant with a prescient ability to understand a community.

Yehi Zichrono Baruch. May his memory be a blessing.

Sara Smith is Assistant Dean of the Graduate Center for Jewish Education at American Jewish University.

Stephen Wise Temple Founder, Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin, dies at 97

Photo courtesy of Stephen Wise Temple

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.

Moving and Shaking: Stephen S. Wise Temple turns 50, David Geffen honored

Stephen S. Wise Temple’s 50th anniversary jubilee gala on June 1 at the Orpheum Theatre was a reminder of how far the community has come since its founding in 1964.

“It was [Zionist leader] Stephen S. Wise who said you cannot have a good congregation unless you have good people in it. And you are the people who for 50 years came along with me as we built the most remarkable temple in the whole country,” founding Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin said, addressing a crowd of approximately 800 clergy, board members, educators, families and other guests.

The hilltop Bel Air Reform congregation is one of the largest in the nation. 

A concert in the downtown venue followed. Stephen S. Wise’s Cantor Nathan Lam participated in an array of musical numbers. Lam joined the congregation in 1976 and also is the founding dean of the cantorial school at the Academy for Jewish Religion, CA.

Stephen S. Wise Temple founding Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin spoke. Photo by Rick Williams

Joshua Nelson and the Kosher Gospel Singers offered Jewish music sung in gospel style. Wearing a sequin-studded robe, Nelson, who is Jewish and black, led a program that included a rendition of “Hine Ma Tov” set to the tune of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The crowd rose to its feet more than once, clapping along. Two backup singers, a bassist and a percussionist accompanied the pianist-vocalist-bandleader.

Musical collaborations continued through the night. To the delight of parents with children in the temple’s day school, students in costume performed numbers from “Fiddler on the Roof,” including “Tradition.” The final number featured Nelson’s band, Lam, Cantor Magda Fishman and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus.

Stephen S. Wise Temple Senior Rabbi Eli Herscher served as master of ceremonies.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti presented an award to the synagogue on behalf of the city. 

David Geffen talks about his lengthy association with UCLA, its medical school and students. Photo courtesy of  Geffen School of Medicine

Philanthropist and entertainment mogul David Geffen was awarded the UCLA Medal, the university’s highest honor, during the Hippocratic Oath Ceremony for Geffen School of Medicine graduates on May 30. 

Presented by UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, who described the prize as “super-select,” Geffen became the latest addition to a diverse list of recipients that includes Bill and Hillary Clinton and architect Frank Gehry. 

Accepting the award, Geffen told the 200 graduates assembled on the lawn outside Perloff Hall, “I went here, too — sort of …” 

Thus began a witty recounting of his life and career. He recalled the time he first visited the UCLA campus, where Geffen’s brother was a second-year law school student. It was just after his own 1960 high school graduation. 

“I remember walking around this campus wishing I had worked hard enough to attend this school,” Geffen said.

Not that the future mogul would let a trifling acceptance letter get in his way. On the application to work in the mailroom of the William Morris Agency, one of his first entertainment jobs, Geffen lied and said he had graduated from UCLA. 

“Every single day I came in [to work] early, waiting for the letter that would reveal to my boss I was not a college graduate,” he said. Geffen eventually intercepted the letter confirming his absence from the UCLA student database.

“I stuffed it in my pocket, saved it and framed it,” he said proudly, knowing his mischievous tale is now the stuff of Hollywood legend. “So, you can see, from the very beginning of my career, UCLA was very important to me!”

The prestigious medal, created in 1979, served as a tribute to Geffen’s entertainment career as well as his philanthropic achievements. In 2002, Geffen made history when he announced the largest single donation ever to a U.S. medical school, a $200 million unrestricted gift to the UCLA School of Medicine, which was swiftly renamed the Geffen School of Medicine. A decade later, he gave an additional $100 million to fund merit-based scholarships covering the entire cost of medical school, enabling an estimated 20 percent of future students to graduate debt-free. 

Whether out of sheer generosity or penance for his rascally past, Geffen told the crowd, “Now I am in a position to repay UCLA.

“It is not possible for me to exaggerate how proud I am to have my name associated with this incredible institution,” he said in closing. “My mom always told me, ‘If you have your health, you have everything,’ [and] it turns out, she was right.”

— Danielle Berrin, Senior Writer

Samara Wolpe with her father, Rabbi David Wolpe.

Samara Wolpe was presented with the 2014 Woman of the Year award by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society at its May 31 Grand Finale Gala at the Skirball Cultural Center. 

Samara said the gala was “wonderful, such a special experience.” Her friends and family all attended to cheer for her as she stood with the other nominees. “I was nervous because I’m the only person under 18 who was nominated,” she later told the Journal.

The organization presents the Man and Woman of the Year titles to whomever raises the most money for research in 10 weeks, with every dollar counting as one vote. 

Samara, a junior at Milken Community Schools, found out when she was 9 that her father, Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, had non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He is currently in remission. 

In honor of the help this research gave her father, the younger Wolpe fundraised enough money to win the competition locally. She will find out on June 30 how she did in the national competition and can’t disclose how much she raised until then. 

“If I don’t win the national competition, that’s OK with me. I still did a good thing,” she said. 

Collectively, the 20 Los Angeles candidates raised more than $1.16 million, according to the organization’s website.

Lauren Plichta, an adviser for the Man and Woman of the Year campaign, said about 500 people attended the event, which was hosted by comedian Andy Kindler. The Man of the Year was Christopher Wilno. 

Samara, 17, couldn’t have asked for a better response when she won: “My dad jumped out of his seat! It was really sweet. He did so much for my campaign; he really fought for me,” she said.

Her father has been in remission for seven years, thanks largely to the drug Rituxan, which researchers discovered with the help of funding provided by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. 

On her fundraising page, Samara recounted the story of when her father first told her, “Honey, I have cancer,” and the horror she felt at facing her father’s mortality as a child. She continued online: “I want to be part of a story where no child has to hear those words again, unless they are followed by these: “Don’t worry, honey. There’s a cure.”

— Cora Markowitz, Contributing Writer

Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email ryant@jewishjournal.com.

Q & A With Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin

If you spend a Saturday afternoon touring Stephen S. Wise Temple with Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin, you will be immersed in the living history of one of Judaism’s great, modern temples. Resting atop 18 commanding acres off of Mulholland Drive in Bel Air, the Stephen S. Wise complex houses 11 buildings where once, 40 years ago, there was nothing.

Zeldin — born, reared and educated in New York City and the Reform synagogue’s guiding beacon for four decades — founded the temple in 1964. At 83, he still talks with childlike excitement about the temple chapel or the schoolteachers’ lounge, displaying a knowledge of the synagogue akin to the knowledge a father has of his grown children. The walls of his modest study are adorned with handshake photos of the rabbi with Presidents Clinton and both Bushes, Israeli prime ministers and Stephen S. Wise himself.

Now, four decades after it was founded, the institution serves some 3,500 families, and its schools teach 1,800 children each day.

“We’re probably the largest synagogue in the world, but you can’t say that,” said Zeldin as begins his tour of the sanctuary, school and the compound’s lush landscaping.

At an expansive pavilion on the roof of a school building, Zeldin gazes at a playground that did not exist 40 years ago.

Jewish Journal: What was here when you came here?

Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin: A mountain that was 50 feet higher. We had to ‘daylight’ the area [lower the mountain’s height] so we took down the mountain 50 feet. We had no place for the dirt. So I invited the University of Judaism, which then was on Sunset Boulevard, to buy the property next door. And we pushed a million cubic yards of dirt onto their hole to make theirs a level piece of property.

JJ: You saw the building of the Getty Center, the beautiful Santa Monica Mountains preserved, the growth of the San Fernando Valley.

IZ: Nothing was here. We wanted to be in the center of the Jewish community. It turns out that this area right here is the center of the California general population but also the Jewish population. I wanted to get away from the ‘pavement’ idea, that a temple must be on the main street where there’s nothing but pavement. I wanted trees. I wanted landscaping all over. I wanted it to be a center for anything that could be even remotely Jewish that would attract people.

JJ: You did not adapt the New York idea of synagogues, such as in Brooklyn or Manhattan, just facing right out onto a boulevard?

IZ: Absolutely — but I copied the New York idea of making the synagogue a center of Jewish life. This was to be a gathering place for anybody who wants whatever of the Jewish pie he’d like to take on.

JJ: The nursery school rooms and the kindergartens touch you so much. Why?

IZ: If I have a bad day, for example, if I have to officiate at the funeral of a teenager, what I do is I spend the next week in the nursery school and I sit on the floor and the kids climb all over me. It’s the school that guarantees the Jewish future. The synagogue does not. It’s the school that guarantees that there will be people in the synagogue.

JJ: Any final thoughts about your 40 years here?

IZ: Poor Moses, who also labored for 40 years, couldn’t get to see the Promised Land. I have the added privilege of shepherding a congregation for 40 years, but I get to see and experience the Promised Land, every day. What we’ve created here is an island of Judaism…. You know what people call it?

JJ: What?

IZ: ‘Mount Shainai.’

JJ: Why Mount Shainai?

IZ: My name is Isaiah, in Hebrew ‘Yeshayahu’ — my name is ‘Shai.’ It is Mount ‘Shainai.’

Events marking the 40th anniversary include the temple’s Feb. 27-28 Shabbaton, “The Spirit of Shabbat: 40 Ways to Nourish Your Soul,” filled with family entertainment and lectures. In honor of the anniversary, a May 12 concert will be held at UCLA’s Royce Hall. For information on the Shabbaton or to register, visit www.sswt.org/40th/shabbaton.html. For ticket prices and more information about the concert, call (310) 889-2276.