Leonard Leibel Fein’s death is a particularly painful loss to the liberal social activist progressive Zionist world. He spoke and wrote always the truth as he understood it, inspired by a deeply Jewish vision, with an eloquence and a precision of language that inspired, opened the heart and renewed a sense of purpose and hope in anyone who was open and receptive enough to resonate with his message.
I first met Leibel 44 years ago when I was a college student at the summer Aliyah of then Brandeis Camp Institute (now Brandeis-Bardin) in Simi Valley, California, where he had come to spend a month with us 70+ young people from all over the country and world. He spoke to us and with us, lecturing about American Jewish life and religion, God, Israel, Zionism, Soviet Jewry, and social justice.
Those were the heady euphoric years after Israel’s lightning victory in the 1967 Six-Days War, yet Leibel (an early scholar of the Israeli enterprise at Brandeis University) understood intuitively that the great victory of three years earlier on the battlefield that resulted in the reunification of Jerusalem and the acquisition of the West Bank, Golan Heights, and Sinai desert, did not address the deeper far more complex moral challenges that confronted the state of Israel and the Jewish people.
He emphasized that there were at least four significant challenges confronting Israel and world Jewry at that time; (1) the 1967 war would not be the last war Israel would be forced to fight; (2) Israel’s Jewish culture, moral and democratic character would be defined in part by how it settled the Arab-Israeli conflict, how it conducted itself as an occupier of more than a two and a half million hostile Palestinian Arabs then living in the West Bank and Gaza, and whether it treated Israeli-Palestinian citizens of the state as equal citizens with Israeli Jews; (3) what would be the fate of the three million Soviet Jews then trapped behind the iron curtain, and (4) looking us in the eye, what we young American and Canadian Jews (and a couple of Israelis), then in our late teens and early twenties, would become as American Jewish leaders.
For some reason, Leibel singled me out all those years ago (he was only 36 at the time), gently but assuredly, and privately challenged me to become engaged seriously with the American Jewish community as a Zionist and a leader. In that way, Leibl became one of my earliest Zionist mentors.
I read nearly everything he would subsequently write, and so often over the decades he focused my thinking and redirected how I considered the great issues facing America and the Jewish people. He never lost his intellectual, moral and compassionate verve. As this last column (link below) that Leibel wrote for The Forward so eloquently and movingly expresses, with its introductory note by the Forward’s editors, what made Leibel Fein’s thought so deeply Jewish was that the prophetic tradition was always his proof text and he led as much from the heart as from the mind.
As Leibel battled his own demons over the years, suffered the tragic loss of his daughter, and finally illness that seemed to plague him for far too long, he never lost what made him that unique and compelling thought leader.
I will miss him, though we only saw each other at J Street conferences in recent years, but he is embedded in my heart as he is in the hearts of so many of us.
Zichrono livracha. May his memory abide as a blessing.