Eulogy for Rabbi Ira Eisenstein

Rabbi David Teutsch
July 1, 2001

With the death of Ira Eisenstein, the leaders of the Reconstructionist movement became orphans. Of course his loss is most intense for his family, but no one involved with the Reconstructionist movement can feel other than that an extraordinary light has gone from our lives. And that is true even for those of us who saw him relatively rarely in these last years.

Ira described himself as a painfully shy and self-conscious young man. The gap between that young man and who Ira became is extraordinary. And I believe there were two fundamental things that made that change possible - two giant passions in Ira's life. One was the passion for Mordecai Kaplan's ideas, and the other was the passion for Mordecai Kaplan's daughter.

From Judy came the extraordinary love of family and warmth that especially in the latter years overflowed not just through family but far beyond. Ira's passion for Kaplan's philosophy was boundless. But while Kaplan believed that his philosophy and ideology could, through his words alone, transform the whole world, Ira understood that the Reconstructionist vision would only really take on a life of its own if a movement were built. It was because of Ira's commitment to creating a movement that the Reconstructionist Judaism that we know today has come to be. We often think of Kaplan as a sort of fearsome presence, but it was Ira who was the more fearless innovator. When he thought something was right, even if it was new, even if it was different, he did not back down from doing it no matter the cost and no matter who had to pay it. And very often it was he who was paying. Never in my experience did that deter him. So to understand Ira, we need to explore what it means to be a hassid for rationalism.

As the leader of the SAJ, Ira was a clear, direct, thoughtful, precise expositor of ideas. Very often the Kaplanian formation of those ideas generated enormous admiration but not tremendous understanding from listeners. It was Ira who took those ideas and made them accessible to people who did not spend their lives thinking about philosophy. And he had an extraordinary gift for taking the complex and making it accessible. During his years at the SAJ, Ira played a central role, alongside Kaplan and Eugene Kohn, in developing the first Reconstructionist prayer book. Ira spent many, many years, really a full career, as the assistant leader of the SAJ. And it would have seemed unsurprising had he spent his whole career there. When he decided there needed to be a Reconstructionist voice in Chicago and picked up and went with his family to Anshei Emet, that was at no small sacrifice, but I think he would have stayed there even though it was not the most comfortable place for the family to be, except that he gradually came to realize that this was a Conservative congregation that could never be won over to a vision as untraditional in many ways as Ira's. And while there was a pull from family back to New York, the stronger pull was the desire to return to the center of the Reconstructionist movement again.

When he came back to the Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation in 1959, it was despite the discouragement individually of many members of the Board. They pointed out that at the Foundation you could not be sure you would earn a living, and even if there was a commitment to pay a salary, there was no guarantee it would arrive on time - a tradition that existed for many years thereafter! He came back to New York because he knew that in order to fulfill what he wanted to accomplish, that was what he had to do. He was a man in his fifties embarking on essentially a new venture. And most of what we now think of as the movement emerged in that next period after he came back from Chicago to the Reconstructionist Foundation.

When we think about Ira, some people think about the myriad of articles he wrote about Reconstructionism, American Jewish life, and the intellectual content of Judaism. Some of us think about his books, but in truth at heart Ira was a movement man. To understand Ira's intellectual oeuvre, one must review what he did as the editor of the Reconstructionist Magazine. Ira's work shined particularly in the editorials. You can feel in the crispness, in the intellectual exactness, indeed in the passion of those editorials what he brought to the movement, and why it gradually took on greater life during those years.

The decision was made to found the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1967, and Ira opened the doors as its first president in 1968. By most reckonings that's when Ira really came into his own, playing the critical role in shaping the movement we now have. Ira was in his sixties by then, a time when very few people would have embarked on such an ambitious enterprise. Yet the powerful integrity and the core civilizational curriculum of the College are very much the work of his hands in those years. His fresh work, clear vision, and careful curriculum construction are unique contributions that no one else could have done in a similar fashion. His legacy really unfolded at that stage in life.

I once said to Ira, "It is hard for me to understand how you had the courage to begin that venture when there was really no money to do it with." And Ira said, "Who knew a college would be so expensive!" He had a sense of what needed to be done next and a commitment to seeing it happen. The kinds of economic or physical or interpersonal constraint that would have stopped anyone else just didn't deter him. If he believed that something needed to happen, he made it happen.

I particularly recall my first RRC Board meeting. It was in the fall of 1980. The fiscal year had already begun, but Ira was presenting the budget for that year to the Board, having already made all the commitments for the expenses. In truth the expense budget was extraordinarily meager. But the income side was even more meager. The members of the Board asked him about the unbalanced budget, and he said, "I am not spending a single penny more than I must to preserve the integrity of the College program." For Ira there were some things that were non-negotiable, and integrity was one of them. A board member said, "But the income side doesn't match." Sotto voce but loud enough for everyone in the room to hear, another board member said, "For a man who doesn't believe in miracles, Ira depends on miracles." And so he did. But the form of miracles he depended on his entire life came from the belief that if you committed yourself to ideas that mattered, if you committed yourself to institutions that the Jewish people needed, then the resources would come forward because people would do the Godly thing. And his faith was justified because to be around Ira was to feel the demand, never spoken, to stand up and do what was right, because that was precisely what Ira himself always did.

Ira in his latter years was a truly great president emeritus. There was considerable ideological upheaval in the movement during the 1980's. It was just after I had become a leader in the movement, and started to work on Kol Haneshamah, the new Reconstructionist prayer book series. Those of you who have studied with him in recent years know that that is not his favorite product of the movement. In the early 1980's, there was a circle of people who wanted to block the ongoing work on the book. A delegation of them went up to see Ira in Woodstock. Ira received them and listened to them very carefully. They said that all he had to do was to make a phone call and the development of the prayer book would stop. He said," No." And they said, "Well don't you agree with us about the book's direction?" And he said to them, according to several furious accountings I heard thereafter, "It is not a question of whether I agree with you or not. This is a movement that is committed to building the future, and we have to support the people who are doing the building." And the interesting thing about Ira's criticisms of the Reconstructionist prayer books is he never uttered them in any public place that I know of until the books were so well established that there could be a discussion about their ideas without that discussion ever undermining the purpose and function of building the movement. And that is a profound comment, both on his integrity and on his commitment to the building of this entity that we all share.

Ira was a man who continued to grow in wisdom, continue to support the work of others and continued to change himself. To master the computer in one's nineties is no small thing, but to shelter and nurture generations of students whose experiences were so different from his own was truly remarkable. I remember one trip I made to Woodstock when I was feeling very overburdened, and he said to me, " All of this hard work is not what will do you in. Burnout comes not from hard work but from heartache. And as long as you are doing the work that you know needs to be done, the rest will take care of itself." He was describing his own life when saying that, because that is indeed how he lived. He always did the work that he thought needed to be done.

In these later years he shepped extraordinary naches from what went on at the College, what went on in the movement, and what went on with his own disciples. We benefited hugely from his largesse. As we went forward and made changes that he could not possibly have dreamed of in his years of work, he knew that those changes grew out of the changes that he had brought. We were standing on the shoulders of a giant, and we will miss him in ways so profound that words will never express them.