LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin, a leader of Reform Judaism who founded and guided the Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles from modest beginnings to become one of the world’s largest Reform congregations, has died.
Zeldin died Friday evening at his home in Palm Springs, California, surrounded by his family. He was 97.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, the son of a respected scholar and ardent Zionist, Zeldin moved to Los Angeles in 1954 to establish the California branch of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion 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 an 18-acre mountain site located 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 said 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 Boulevard, 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,” he recalled.
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 described Zeldin as having 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, then-California governor Gray 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.
Yoshi Zweiback, the senior rabbi at Stephen Wise, said he was “amazed and inspired by Rabbi Zeldin’s impact on the lives of so many members of our community … 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 preschool, elementary school and community high school.
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.
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.
Financial patron Lowell Milken described the rabbi as “the most transforming individual I have met in my lifetime.” Milken added: “He was great at lightening your wallet, but in such a way that in the end you considered it an honor.”
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 hm as “Shy,” derived from Yeshayahu, the Hebrew name for Isaiah. 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. His wife of 68 years, Florence, died in 2012.
Zeldin is survived by two sons, five grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and a brother.