Lelyveld, Arthur Joseph

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Lelyveld, Arthur Joseph

(b. 6 February 1913 in New York City; d. 15 April 1996 in Beachwood, Ohio), rabbi and leader in the Reform movement who championed social causes, especially Zionism and civil rights.

The only child of Edward Joseph, a hosiery salesman, and Dora Cohen, a homemaker, Lelyveld exhibited tremendous energy and motivation for learning from an early age. He and his family lived in Manhattan, where he attended George Washington High School. He was greatly influenced in his childhood by his maternal grandfather, a rabbi who had immigrated to the United States from Europe. Although his immediate family was not religiously observant, both of his parents were supportive of his decision to become a rabbi.

Entering Columbia University at age fifteen, Lelyveld supported himself by playing banjo and guitar in three bands, all under the name Arthur J. Lelyveld and the Columbia Ramblers. While in college, he became the first Jewish editor of the campus newspaper, the Columbia Daily Spectator, as well as a director of the glee club and a member of the wrestling team. In 1933 Lelyveld graduated Phi Beta Kappa, and on 26 December of the same year he married Toby Bookholtz. They had three children and divorced in 1964. Later that year, on 5 December, he married Teela Stovsky. They had two children, one of whom predeceased Lelyveld.

Although he confessed to an interest in journalism, Lelyveld felt a calling to the rabbinate. In 1939 he graduated from Hebrew Union College with a master of Hebrew letters degree. The Lelyvelds moved from New York to Hamilton, Ohio, where he became rabbi at congregation B’nai Israel. He stayed there until 1941, when he moved to Omaha, Nebraska, to serve as the rabbi of Temple Israel.

Always an ardent Zionist, Lelyveld left the ministry in 1944 to work for the Committee on Unity for Palestine as its executive director. In this capacity, he had the opportunity to meet with President Harry S. Truman to promote the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine. During Lelyveld’s lifetime, he made more than thirty trips to Israel and received numerous awards for his efforts on behalf of the Jewish state. In 1946 he left the committee to work for B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundations, first as associate national director and later as national director. In 1956 he served as the executive vice president of the America-Israel Cultural Foundation.

Lelyveld moved to Cleveland in 1958 to become the rabbi at Fairmount Temple. While there, he added several innovations to the services, lectures, and prayers. For example, he hired the first female cantor in Cleveland, instituted special services for families, and included Tisha B’Av and Selichor as holidays of observance. Although he was ordained in the Reform movement, Lelyveld retained many traditional observances, which were apparent in the way his synagogue was run. Breaking from Reform traditions, Lelyveld chose to attend an Orthodox synagogue on the second day of Jewish High Holidays.

A renowned orator, Lelyveld also became a leader in the civil rights movement. After officiating at the funeral of the slain twenty-year-old civil rights worker Andrew Goodman, the son of friends, Lelyveld joined other Cleveland clergy on a voter registration drive in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in the summer of 1964. He served as a minister-counselor to the Council of Federated Organizations under the auspices of the Commission on Race and Religion of the National Council of Churches. Returning from voter registration work one evening, Lelyveld, then fifty-one, was severely beaten by segregationists. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) later awarded him its Distinguished Service Award for this mission.

Lelyveld also spoke at the funeral of David R. Berger, a former Cleveland resident who became a weight lifter and who was murdered with other Israeli Olympic athletes by Palestinian terrorists in Munich, Germany, in 1972. Lelyveld, continuing to believe in nonviolent protest, rejected the idea of retaliation voiced by some militant Jewish extremist groups.

Although an unassuming man, Lelyveld nevertheless gained a reputation for being a leader among his peers. During his tenure as senior rabbi, he took top leadership positions in many national organizations. From 1966 to 1972 he served as president of the American Jewish Congress. He also served as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (1975–1977) and of the Synagogue Council of America (1979–1981). His volunteerism and leadership were prominent at the local level as well. In 1963 he was the general chairman of the Cleveland Jewish Welfare Fund campaign. During the 1960s he served on the executive committee of the Cleveland NAACP and as president of the Cleveland Board of Rabbis.

Lelyveld was the author of two books: Atheism Is Dead (1963) and The Steadfast Stream: An Introduction to Jewish Social Values (1995). He contributed chapters to several books, including The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia (1939–1941) and Retrospect and Prospect: Position of the Jew in the Modern World (1964). Lelyveld also contributed articles and reviews to numerous journals.

After retiring in 1986, Lelyveld became an adjunct professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He was also the Bernard Rich Hollander Lecturer in Jewish Thought at John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio. Lelyveld said that because of his love of learning, he always considered himself a student rather than a teacher. He enjoyed almost ten years of active retirement before he died of a brain tumor in 1996. He was buried in Cleveland according to Orthodox procedures.

Lelyveld’s unwavering commitment to social justice influenced his actions and inspired those who met him. At the core of this commitment was his quest to become a more learned and pious Jew. “There’s a certain ambivalence among people in minority groups,” he said. “Some tend to become escapists. Others are drawn more into the group. My psychological tendency all through life has been to become more and more a Jew. It’s my philosophy that the more integrated I become, the better human being I’ll be.”

The collection of Lelyveld’s manuscripts and personal papers is held at the Western Reserve Historical Society. Information regarding his Jewish philosophies can be found in Mark Raphael, Profiles in American Judaism (1984). Information about his accomplishments can be found in the Encyclopedia Judaica (1986). An obituary is in the New York Times (16 Apr. 1996).

Molly Jalenak Wexler