The last thing I said to Leonard ‘Leibel’ Fein, the American Jewish leader and visionary who died August 14 at age 80, was, “Check your inbox.”
We had just concluded a two-day meeting for Ameinu, the progressive Zionist organization on whose board we both sat. Over coffee breaks and deli dinners, we had spoken about his writings, including Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent’s Story of Love, Loss and Hope, the book he had written about his daughter’s untimely death. I had wanted to seek some advice on finding my way into the pages of the Forward, where Fein had been a featured columnist for nearly a quarter century. Hence my final comment to him, as I bid him farewell.
Not two days later, by coincidence, I had secured a position as a contributing blogger at the Forward and so put off sending that email to Leibel.
But, today, I have pangs of sad regret. There was so much else I could have learned from him: how he balanced the pressures of universalism and tribalism – as Steven M. Cohen wrote about so eloquently in his tribute to Fein in the Forward; how he identified pressing social justice needs and found a way to address them; how he remained a steadfast supporter of Israel while allowing himself to criticize its policies when he deemed them ill-suited to the vision of Zionism he believed in. Even in his final column for the Forward – published two days after his death – “From Gaza to Sderot, Trauma Marks the Past – and the Present,” he effortlessly summoned empathy for “both sides.”
By all accounts, Fein was a visionary giant. The fact that there was hunger in America – the land of plenty – pained him (he called it a “scandal”), so he founded MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. He was awed by the gap between Jewish literacy levels and the plague of ongoing illiteracy in America, so he founded the National Jewish Coalition for Literacy. Writing about Jewish affairs was a passion, so he co-founded, and for 12 years, edited, Moment magazine.
He was a committed liberal Zionist, serving on the boards of the New Israel Fund, Americans for Peace Now, and Ameinu. Sam Norich, publisher of the Forward (and another fellow Ameinu board member), called Fein “a magid, an itinerant preacher whom people came to hear because he illuminated our lives.” Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic, called him a “state-of-the-art mensch.”
As a liberal Zionist, Leibel represented the strand of Zionism I tend to advocate when I write about Israel in the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin, and I have noticed that, of all the letters the Bulletin receives in response to my column, it is the subject of Israel that gets readers most incensed. But it’s the legacy of Jewish leaders like Leibel that reminds me there is a third way: neither the way of vilification nor the way of whitewashing. There is a way to embrace Israel, point out its flaws and focus on promoting solutions rather than scoring political points.
I regret not asking Leibel how, in his generation, many of whose members maintain a more hawkish perspective when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians, he was able to maintain a politics of compassion. I regret not asking him about how he was able to nurse a loss so deep, the death of his daughter, that he could still contribute to the public sphere and touch so many in such a profound way. I regret not asking him about the relationship he saw between social justice issues like literacy, hunger and the plight of minorities and asylum seekers in Israel, and Israel’s path forward with the Palestinians.
I indeed regret not asking him about these things. But I also suspect that, deep down, I know the answer. He was able to merge these identities and positions because, for him, the answer lay in the principles of expansiveness, relationships, empathy and connection. And, judging by the many highly personal tributes to Leibel that have been filling social media and the Jewish press over the past few weeks – mentoring relationships mourned, inspiration cherished and even secret crushes revealed, many others thought so too.
Mira Sucharov, an associate professor of political science at Carleton University, blogs at Haaretz.com.