Obituary: Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin

Californian rabbi who literally moved a mountain to build a synagogue


The Reform leader who founded the Los Angeles Stephen Wise Temple, Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin has died aged 97. Under his guidance, the Temple developed into one of the world’s largest Reform congregations.

Born and raised in Brooklyn (New York), the son of a respected scholar and ardent Zionist, he moved to Los Angeles in 1954 to establish the California branch of Hebrew Union College 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 between the city’s two largest Jewish centres, the Westside and San Fernando Valley.

To prepare the site, contractors literally had to move a mountain by lowering its height, Zeldin told the California Journal in 2004. “I invited the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) to buy the property next door. And we pushed a million cubic yards of dirt into the hole to make it a levelled piece of property.” His legacy is a thriving congregation of some 4,800 members and students led by five rabbis and two cantors.

The impact of his personality ranged well beyond the local Jewish community. Former California governor Gray Davis, said Zeldin combined 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, Davis, though a Catholic, was so taken by the rabbi’s personality that he attended High Holiday services at Stephen Wise Temple for 34 years.

Its Senior Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback observed, “I was amazed and inspired by Rabbi Zeldin’s impact on the lives of so many members -- what he did for our congregation, for the Los Angeles community and more broadly, for the Jewish people, was truly extraordinary.”

With long term collaborator Metuka Benjamin, Zeldin launched an extensive Reform day-school system including a pre-school, elementary school and community high school. Benjamin said Zeldin had an “iron fist in a silk glove – nobody ever said no to him.”

Zeldin, a committed Zionist who enjoyed impressing Israeli visitors by his students’ Jewish knowledge and fluent Hebrew, emphasised that schools were on the front line of Jewish continuity. “At Stephen Wise, we built the school before we built the Temple.”

Among Zeldin’s many patrons was Lowell Milken, co-founding chair of the Milken Family Foundation, who described him as “the most transforming individual I have met in my lifetime.” Business executive David Smith, closely involved in bringing the Temple’s educational goal to fruition, said: “Rabbi Zeldin always had a clear picture where he wanted to go. Some people complained that he didn’t listen to what they were saying. However, he did listen, though he was never side-tracked from where he was going.”

Zeldin transferred his acumen to his champion-level chess game – “I try to think three moves ahead,” he used to say) and applied his vigour and enthusiasm to the golf course.

Zeldin retired as senior rabbi at Stephen Wise Temple in 1990 but remained actively involved with the congregation throughout his life.

Florence Zeldin, who was married to the rabbi for 68 years, predeceased him in 2012. Zeldin is survived by his children Joel and Michael; brother Bernard Zeldin; five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.


Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin: born: July 11, 1920. Died January 26, 2018

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