Remembering Leonard Fein

Past Boston Workmen's Circle President Mike Felsen shares his remembrances of visionary Leonard (Leibel) Fine (1934-2014). The original tribute appeared in The Jewish Advocate on Thurs., Oct. 16, 2014.

Visionary thinker, activist, and leader in the American Jewish world, Leonard (Leibel) Fein died on Aug. 14 at the age of eighty. Among his many accomplishments, he was a prodigious commentator on the world scene – especially on the Israel he cherished, but whose policies he wasn’t shy to criticize when he believed they merited such treatment – including as a frequent columnist for The Advocate. By speaking his truth unabashedly, he inspired, and also enraged, many. But few, I think, could effectively challenge the power of his pen, the passion in his heart, and the strength of his moral conviction. I don’t claim to have the depth and breadth of relationship with Leibel that many others had. But I often found myself at his home for a gathering of one sort or another, usually involving some combination of politics, food, and music. We also collaborated on projects we both valued.

Several years ago the Islamic Society of Boston (ISB) had broken ground on what was slated to be the largest mosque in New England, but some in the Boston community weren’t pleased with that prospect. A lawsuit was filed challenging the city’s transfer of land to the ISB as a violation of church-state separation. At the same time, FOX News and the Boston Herald began carrying stories claiming that current or former ISB leaders had made anti-Semitic remarks or had ties to terrorism. The ISB ultimately filed a defamation lawsuit, which included claims against the pro-Israel advocacy group The David Project. At that point, much of the institutional Jewish community in Boston closed ranks, declaring, in effect, that dialogue between the Jewish and Muslim communities was suspended.

Leibel and I joined with several others who found this an unacceptable proposition. We urged mediation of the legal disputes, and an end to the impasse. Eventually, the lawsuits were dropped, but tensions remained high. In response, we formed a small committee of Jews and Muslims, and drafted a joint statement called “Building a Community of Trust.” Rolled out just before Rosh Hashanah in 2007 – which coincided with the beginning of Ramadan that year – it was signed by a diverse group of Jews and by the leaders of every Muslim institution in greater Boston. The signers affirmed “the common humanity of all racial, religious, and ethnic groups, and their common need for safety, security, and dignity,” while decrying “all forms of terrorism, racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim prejudice, and stigmatization.” That fall, the statement was read in mosques and synagogues around the city. In calling for “hope and not fear,” it bore both Leibel’s imprint and his imprimatur.

Another collaboration: In much of the institutional Jewish community, organizations advocating, in one form or another, boycott, divestment, or sanctions (“BDS”) as tactics intended to influence Israeli policies, are viewed with disdain and worse. Even discussion of BDS is often viewed warily, and considered so treif by some as to be entirely off-limits. But others in the Jewish community – including Boston Workmen’s Circle (BWC) – believe that thorny subjects like these deserve to be dissected and debated openly, and not viewed as so toxic as to be untouchable.

In that spirit, in October of 2011 BWC hosted a debate that included Rebecca Vilkomerson, director of Jewish Voice for Peace, which, given its positions on BDS, was included on the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) 2013 list of “ Top 10 anti-Israel Groups in America.” Joining the debate were Larry Lowenthal, former director of the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) New England chapter, and Leibel Fein. Leibel staked out a middle ground. Voicing a Zionist’s unashamed love for Israel and its right to exist, he also delivered an unapologetic critique of those policies – particularly the persistent occupation  – that he believed betrayed Israel’s aspiration to be a just and democratic homeland for the Jewish people.

This was vintage Leibel Fein: Loving Israel, but speaking truth to the Jewish institutional world when he saw it reticent to open its eyes wide enough, seeking justice where it was needed, and offering hope when it was in short supply.

I’m privileged to have known him.

Michael Felsen was president of Boston Workmen’s Circle from 2007 to 2013.