Reconstructionist leader dies at age 94

WASHINGTON — Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, an architect of Reconstructionist Judaism, died of a heart attack June 28. Born in New York's Harlem, Eisenstein, 94, lived in Silver Spring, Md., for the past six years. He had been a longtime resident of Woodstock, N.Y.

Remembered as someone with a "sparkle in his eye" who loved to be intellectually engaged, he is credited with taking the vision of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, who developed Reconstructionist philosophy, and creating the movement itself. He served as the founding president of the movement's seminary, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, from 1968 to 1981.

"His death means that the leaders of the Reconstructionist movement have become orphans," Rabbi David A. Teutsch, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa., said Sunday at Eisenstein's funeral at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Md. Some 250 people attended.

"It's the end of an era," Rabbi Sid Schwarz, who founded Adat Shalom, said in an interview.

Until just two weeks before his death, Eisenstein was holding classes for Adat members on such topics as Talmud and Torah, Rashi and homiletics, in his home on Sunday evenings.

At age 90, he learned to use a computer.

Acknowledging that the expression might seem a bit of out of place, Schwarz said Eisenstein "played Paul to Kaplan's Jesus. Kaplan was the visionary, Eisenstein the institution builder."

Until the college's founding, Kaplan and his followers comprised the left wing of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly of America.

It was Eisenstein who, in the early 1940s, envisioned a fourth movement of Judaism. In his book "Reconstructing Judaism: An Autobiography," he discussed a memo he had sent to Kaplan. "The time had come, I believed for a fourth group to be created, a group that would draw to it all these left-wing Conservatives and right-wing Reformists, leaving the right-wing Conservatives to rejoin the ranks of the Orthodox."

Kaplan, Eisenstein reported, was not moved by the memo, and it took years before he supported the notion that Reconstructionist synagogues needed rabbis trained in their own movement.

"It was really because of Ira's commitment to creating a movement that the Reconstructionist movement as we know it today came to be," Teutsch said.

Eisenstein was not just Kaplan's closest collaborator and confidant, he was also his son-in-law. In 1934, he married Kaplan's daughter, Judith, the first woman to have a bat mitzvah ceremony. Judith died in 1996. The two shared a love not just of Judaism but of music; together they wrote five cantatas.

"Reconstructionist ideology has moved considerably past where [Eisenstein] was," Schwarz said, becoming more mystical and spiritual. "In his heyday, it was the exact opposite. It was the rational branch of Judaism."

Eisenstein wrote that "God is not a personal Being, and referring to Him is only a device for articulating thought, not a commitment to belief in the existence of a supernatural something."

Teutsch called Eisenstein a "Chassid for rationalism."

In his eulogy Sunday, Rabbi Richard Hirsh, executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, also pointed to Eisenstein's rational thinking. He said Eisenstein would have found it ironic and amusing that his funeral was bracketed by the Torah portions, Chukat, which describes how the laws of Torah resist rational explanation, and Balak, which includes a talking donkey.

Rabbi George Dreisen pointed to Eisenstein's openness to change, recalling that he often said he had four daughters: Miriam, her sister, Ann, and their respective partners, Carol Stern and Judy Greenwald. Eisenstein also had a son, Ethan, who is developmentally disabled.

In 1954, Eisenstein left the Society for the Advancement of Judaism in New York to become rabbi of Chicago's Anshe Emet Synagogue.He later served as president of the Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation. He also was a longtime editor of The Reconstructionist, the movement's magazine, and had served as president of the Rabbinical Assembly and rabbi of the Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North Shore, in Plandome, N.Y.

In addition to his autobiography, published in 1986, Eisenstein was the author of "Creative Judaism" (1936), "What We Mean by Religion" (1938) and "Judaism Under Freedom" (1956).

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