Leonard (Leibel) Fein, who died Aug. 14 at the age of 80, was a passionate and articulate voice for social justice in American Jewish life for decades. In his prolific writing, his lectures and his organizational creativity, he preached an ancient and contemporary message: “To be a Jew,” he wrote, “is to know that you are bound somehow, to help repair this world.” (See Appreciation on page 12.)
This he did in a number of ways, not only in defining an agenda of mitzvot through Moment, the independent magazine of ideas he founded with Elie Wiesel in 1975, but in working to enact that agenda by creating Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, in the 1980s and the National Jewish Coalition for Literacy in the 1990s.
Blessed with a quick wit, a husky but resonant voice and a wellspring of Jewish knowledge, Fein was an influential spokesman on a range of issues, including the Mideast impasse, on which he was fiercely dovish, and American Jewish life, on which he was a thoughtful, critical observer.
Whether lecturing at Brandeis University, speaking at a Jewish conference, writing for The Forward, where he was a columnist, or penning an essay or book on some aspect of Jewish life, Fein wielded great influence in the community as a public intellectual.
“For an entire generation he defined Judaism largely in terms of social justice,” Steven Bayme, director of AJC’s Contemporary Jewish Life Department, told The Jewish Week. “There was much more to him than merely social liberalism. He enhanced the quality of Jewish life.”
Part of Fein’s charm — and he had a great deal — was that he could argue passionately about what is wrong with Zionism as practiced in Israel, or the problems in the organized Jewish community in America today and maintain strong friendships with those who opposed his views.
In one memorable debate, on the practice of Judaism, with Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg at a General Assembly in 1974, the two men switched roles on the spot for a moment; Rabbi Greenberg offering his yarmulke to Fein, and Fein, a committed Reform Jew, offered a wide smile of appreciation as the audience applauded.
Throughout his life Leibel Fein spoke out with eloquence, understanding and appreciation of the past while looking to the future. His voice will be sorely missed, but his legacy will live on.