ZELDIN, ISAIAH (1920– ), founding rabbi of Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles, creator of the largest Jewish day school within an American Reform congregation, founding dean of the Los Angeles campus of the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion. A visionary, he is the example par excellence of the rabbi as institution builder and leader.
Born in Brooklyn to Russian immigrant parents, his earliest influences rooted him deeply in the life of the Jewish people. His father was a Zionist, a Yiddishist, and a Hebraist, who wrote for both the Yiddish and Hebrew press. Zeldin's parents decided that they would raise their children speaking only Hebrew in the home. In high school he lobbied for the addition of Modern Hebrew to the curriculum. Later, he convinced Brooklyn College, where he earned his bachelor's degree, to accept Modern Hebrew as a legitimate, officially recognized foreign language.
In 1933, at the age of 13, his father took him to a rally protesting the rise of Hitler. It was when he heard Rabbi Stephen S. *Wise address the rally that he decided to devote his life to the well-being and defense of the Jewish people. He was ordained rabbi (1946) by the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.
After serving as an assistant rabbi in Newark for two years, he was named assistant dean of huc-jir in New York, supervising the faculties of the Schools of Education and Sacred Music.
In 1953, he moved to Los Angeles to become the dean of the College of Jewish Studies, assembling an exceptional faculty, creating a School of Sacred Music and a large School of Education. Within one year, under his leadership, the college became the West Coast campus of huc-jir. Within five years he had created a Rabbinical School. Concurrently, he was regional director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, overseeing the creation of many new Reform congregations in the area. From 1958 to 1963 he served as rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills.
His greatest contributions to Jewish life were yet to unfold. In 1964 he founded Stephen S. Wise Temple, named for his teacher and mentor. Inspired by Wise's passionate Zionism, as well as his commitment to a rabbi's freedom to speak even the most unpopular of truths from the pulpit, Zeldin built his congregation from a small group of 35 members who met in a living room to a community of 3,500 member families. Respected and admired for his depth and breadth of knowledge, for the lively intellect he brought to the pulpit, as well as for his genuine warmth and engaging manner, his leadership was always marked by an innovative spirit and an uncanny understanding of the zeitgeist and the needs of his community. He set forth a bold vision that his congregants made their own.
When the temple acquired land, the first buildings he erected were classrooms. Jewish education was at the center of his vision. He created the largest synagogue pre-school in Los Angeles and went on to establish an elementary day school of nearly 700 students – all during years that the Reform Movement had not yet committed to the idea of day school education.
At age 70 – with all of his rabbinic colleagues long retired – he took on a challenge which would become the pinnacle of his achievements: the creation of a Jewish high school in which nearly 900 students study every day, the only such school to be operated by a Reform synagogue in North America. The synagogue and its education network – from Parenting Center to pre-school, elementary and high school, as well as its adult learning Center for Jewish Life – are now located on three separate campuses spanning 30 acres.
Over the course of a rabbinic career spanning more than 60 years, his passion for Jewish life, the Jewish people, and Israel never waned. He never stopped building his congregation and its schools which serve as a model nation-wide. He continued to teach and write as he led and inspired.
[Eli Herscher (2nd ed.)]