NEW YORK (Nov. 11)
Only a few hours before he was scheduled to address the centennial biennial convention of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Rabbi Maurice N. Eisendrath, who led the organization of Reform Judaism in the United States for 30 years, died Friday of a heart attack in his hotel room. Rabbi Eisendrath, who was executive director of UAHC from 1943-50 and president since then, was 71 years old. More than 2500 mourners attended the funeral service today in Central Synagogue. Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn of Temple Israel, Boston, a close friend of Rabbi Eisendrath and former president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, delivered the eulogy. The service was conducted by Rabbi B.T. Rubinstein of Westport, Conn. Burial will be tomorrow in the Holy Blossom Temple cemetery in Toronto. Rabbi Eisendrath served as the temple’s spiritual leader from 1929-43.
The announcement of his death was read to the shocked delegates by Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler who was scheduled to become UAHC president next year. Some 3500 persons had gathered in the Hilton Hotel for a joint worship service with the UAHC and its women’s affiliate, the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods. The address, which was to have been Rabbi Eisendrath’s valedictory remarks, was sharply critical of the Nixon Administration and those Jews in America who, he charged condoned the crimes of Watergate because of Administration support of Israel.
According to a press release sent earlier to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Rabbi Eisendrath scored what he called “our ever-scapegoating president…so indifferent at all the obscene dishonesty and pervasive corruption that have so blackened the White House, so obsessed with ‘national security’ as to rationalize the most unforgivable concealment and the most blatant fabrication that have brought us within an inch of a dictatorial police state.” In the face of betrayal, Rabbi Eisendrath asked, “Are we still prepared to assert that religion has nothing to do with politics. Unless we Jews, conversant with the moral commands of our faith, resume our responsibilities, we will have forfeited for all time our usefulness and our reason for surviving as a people.”
The address, in the form of a sermon, also covered a wide range of topics. Rabbi Eisendrath emphasized the growing strength of the synagogue and noted it dramatizes the effectiveness of religious Judaism in rallying Jews, and the existing centrality of the synagogue in American Jewish life. He stated that rabbis were able to muster instant congregational response for Israel because synagogues were filled with Yom Kippur worshippers when news of the Arab invasion broke. Mobilization for aid, therefore, was spurred by the power of religious and moral impetus.
In this context, Rabbi Eisendrath strongly reaffirmed the solidarity of Reform Jews with Israel, but warned that the 1.1-million-member Reform Jewish movement would fight for full religious rights in Israel. He called for a constitutional insertion in the UAHC’s by-laws making the religious movement’s commitment to Israel part of the group’s platform, “to strengthen the solidarity of the Jewish people in all lands, to foster the development of Liberal Judaism throughout the world under the auspices of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and to enrich and sustain the State of Israel as a vibrant exemplar of eternal Jewish values.”
Rabbi Eisendrath was born in Chicago and attended schools in Cincinnati. He received a B.A. degree in 1925 from the University of Cincinnati, where he majored in philosophy. After studies at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati he was ordained in 1926. Rabbi Eisendrath was always involved with UAHC. When he became executive director in 1943, the organization had a few hundred Reform congregations. Today there are more than 700 congregations in the U.S. and Canada in UAHC. Rabbi Eisendrath was involved in many religious and secular controversies during his long career. He was active in the civil rights movement working with the late Dr. Martin Luther King and in the anti-war movement.
His address was to have included a plea for amnesty for those who refused to serve in the army during the Vietnam War. His address was also to have contained a strong defense of Judaism. “The world needs Judaism,” he said, “its compassion instead of the machismo of today’s violence, its optimism in the face of despair, its compassion in the face of human callousness, its reverence for the life of the mind in defiance of emotionalism run riot, its love of learning and passion for justice, its hunger for peace as the apex of God’s kingdom and its partnership with God in setting the world aright.”