Marshall Meyer, a charismatic Conservative rabbi who invigorated Jewish religious life and championed human rights causes in both Buenos Aires and New York, died Wednesday at New York Hospital.
The 63-year-old rabbi suffered from liver cancer and had recently undergone surgery in an unsuccessful attempt to stem the illness.
Meyer, a man with a fiery oratorical style who involved himself in progressive and sometimes controversial causes, energized Jewish religious life and human rights activities in the Argentine capital, where he served for 25 years, and then at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
He transformed the old New York synagogue from a moribund congregation mainly attracting older area residents to an “in” spot that continues to draw hundreds of Sabbath worshipers each Friday evening, many in their 20s and 30s.
Hella Moritz, an active member of the congregation, recalled going there shortly after he took up the pulpit in 1985. “There were about 40 old people in a dark synagogue,” she said. “He made it into a place full of life and aspirations.”
Meyer, a native of Brooklyn, was raised in Norwich, Conn. He attended Dartmouth College, Columbia University and Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and received his rabbinical ordination in 1958 from the Jewish Theological Seminary.
A one-time personal secretary of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Conservative luminary and civil rights leader, he also served as special counsel to the chancellor of JTS. In recent years, he taught religion at both Yale and Harvard universities.
On beginning his rabbinical position at B’nai Jeshurun, Meyer stressed the need of the synagogue to work within the greater community, Meyer said, “It would be the irony of ironies to be totally concerned with that which is Jewish.”
“A community that is only able to speak out when confronted with anti-Semitism” and not when the rights of other community members are threatened “loses its right to speak,” he said.
Meyer hosted Jewish-Palestinian dialogues at the synagogue, often having a Palestinian speaker at Saturday morning services.
He also got involved in the issue of sanctuary for Central American refugees and in the battle to combat homelessness.
SPOKE OUT AGAINST ‘DIRTY WAR’
And he fostered a proud gay and lesbian community at the synagogue, prompting one gay leader there to say, “I must be the first Jew to be ‘outed’ by my own rabbi.”
Meyer went to Argentina in 1959, where he initially had a position as an assistant rabbi in a German Jewish synagogue in Buenos Aires.
What was to be a short-term assignment turned into a 25-year stay in that country, during which he led Congregation Bet El from a synagogue in a private home with 30 worshippers to Argentina’s largest Conservative congregation.
Under his leadership, the synagogue grew to more than 1,000 families, had its own school system and summer camp, and sent thousands of youths on aliyah.
During his years in Argentina, Meyer witnessed the savage brutality of both the extreme right and left and of the military regimes that followed the collapse of Maria Estela (“Evita”) Peron’s government in 1976.
He became an outspoken critic of the military regime when the so-called “Dirty War” was raging and tens of thousands of people were disappearing, most not to be heard from again.
Meyer also served as spiritual adviser to imprisoned newspaper editor Jacobo Timerman, a secular Jew who had been incarcerated and tortured for his human rights writings and activities.
Meyer’s activities thrust him into national prominence. In 1984, he was one of two Jews appointed by then-President Raul Alfonsin to a 16-member government investigative body that looked into the disappearances and provided evidence at the military leaders’ trials.
Meyer also worked at transforming Jewish life, not only in Argentina but in all Latin America. In 1962, he founded the Rabbinical Seminary for Latin America, the only Conservative rabbinical seminary in Latin America. He served as the institution’s rector.
Between his careers in Buenos Aires and New York, Meyer served for a year as vice president of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, the West Coast branch of JTS.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.