The Federation’s Rabbi


Shortly after the 1979 revolution in Iran, which made many of the country’s Jews nervous about their future in a fundamentalist Muslim country, Iranian Jewish families arranged for a few thousand of their children to come alone to the United States to attend Jewish schools.

Pinchas Berger, a staff member of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services who had done resettlement work here with Jewish émigrés from the former Soviet Union, attended a meeting at UJA-Federation headquarters to discuss the nearly 2,000 young Iranian Jews who would be hosted by yeshivot and day schools in the New York area. The meeting was chaired by a UJA-Federation lay leader, but Berger’s strongest memory is of Rabbi Isaac Trainin, who was executive director of the philanthropy’s commission on synagogue relations.

Rabbi Trainin strongly urged the participants in the meeting, who represented a cross-section of New York’s Jewish organizations, to welcome the youngsters, Berger said. “He certainly let his voice he heard.”

Rabbi Trainin, who died Jan. 8 at his Manhattan home, “did not brag” about his role in opening the doors of the Jewish community to the Iranian students, Berger said. Rabbi Trainin was 88.

The rabbi, who had earned a reputation for bringing a Jewish voice to a largely secular agency as “the federation’s rabbi” for his 34 years of service at UJA-Federation and its predecessor agency, the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, immediately upon retirement in 1986 turned his attention to the needs of hospitalized and homebound Jews.

He was recently honored by UJA-Federation for his 55 years of service to the philanthropy.

“Every agency within our network, every grantee we support, every initiative we lead are, in some way, infused with Ike’s vision for the Jewish people — in New York, Israel, and around the globe,” UJA-Federation executive vice president and CEO John Ruskay said at the event.

The Coordinating Council on Bikur Cholim, now under the aegis of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, is named for Rabbi Trainin. He served as for about a dozen years as the hands-on, volunteer director of the council, which trains volunteers who visit the infirm, and sponsors an annual conference.

“It was his brainchild,” says Berger, who is director of Jewish communal services at JBFCS. “He decided that the mainstream Jewish institutions were avoiding contact with people who needed connections to the community — ill, aging, frail isolated people. He determined that unless a strong voice spoke up and spoke out, nothing would change.

“He didn’t just point the finger,” Berger said. “He mobilized people. He challenged and engaged people. He was a very passionate person who did not easily take no for an answer.”

Berger called Rabbi Trainin “a giant in Jewish communal service. He used his position [in UJA-Federation] to leverage the link between Jewish institutions and rabbis, and human services agencies.”

Rabbi Trainin, who was Orthodox and was ordained by Mesifta Torah Vodaath in Brooklyn, maintained an avuncular, pipe-smoking presence at UJA-Federation headquarters, leading holiday celebrations for staff members and lay leaders, and teaching popular classes about Jewish ethics.

“Rabbi Trainin was a national pioneer in relating the religious communities in America to the federation world,” William Kahn, executive vice president of the federation in 1986, said upon the rabbi’s retirement. “His work resulted in virtually every federation in America developing a synagogue relations department modeled after New York.”

“He was a man who represented moral standards and the values of our religion,” said Stephen Solender, former executive vice president of UJA-Federation. “His impact was felt broadly.”

Rabbi Trainin, who documented his work in several memoirs, pushed the organized Jewish community to deal with such issues as compulsive gambling, alcoholism, drug addiction, marriage and divorce, cults and intermarriage.

“Nobody believed there was a problem,” the rabbi would say.

“He has a very broad sense of Jewish community,” Solender said. “He had a sense of the need for our community to be aware of the needs of the poor.”

Rabbi Trainin continued until two weeks ago to come to his post-retirement office at UJA-Federation, where he worked as a consultant. The last few years he came in a wheelchair, Solender said. “Every time I’d see him he’d tell me he’s working on another chapter of his memoirs,”

Rabbi Trainin, born in a religious Zionist family in Russia, came to the U.S. as a child with his parents.

He is survived by his wife, Frances; a son, Eugene; a daughter, Barbara; four grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.

His nephew was the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defense League.

“Meir wasn’t embraced by the Jewish establishment,” Rabbi Trainin said in a 1984 interview with The Jewish Week. Had mainstream Jewish organizations been more open to Rabbi Kahane’s brand of activism, Rabbi Trainin speculated, “there would never have been a JDL.”

Rabbi Trainin would describe himself as an activist within a mainstream setting.

“My epitaph,” he once said, “will be ‘He did not always succeed, but he never gave up.’”