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Summer Camp With Leonard Fein Changed Me Forever

Leonard Fein

The Jewish media has been awash with words of admiration for Leonard Fein, who died August 14. They come from those who mourn the passing of a person who embodies his name, a lion who roars. Their tributes rightly reflect upon his fire for social justice, his eloquence and his willingness to put his passion to work by creating real, living institutions which have done no less than feed the hungry (Mazon), pursue true justice in the Middle East (Breira, New Israel Fund, American Friends of Peace Now) and stoke the minds of American Jews to think beyond boring and worn out platitudes (Moment). The tributes note his provocative pieces on the opinion page of the Forward and the decades of lectures at synagogues and on panels of symposia, conferences, and other kinds of gatherings where he chided American Jews to live up to their tradition’s prophetic faith. He is being remembered for going to the Reform movement in 1971 and reminding it that, “Reform is a Verb.”

These tributes are being written by people who knew and loved the mature Leibel whom they encountered as adults. My tribute begins long before he strode onto the national stage to shake up American Jewry and decades prior to my becoming a professor of American Jewish History at New York University. Rather it starts in 1958, when Leibel Fein charismatically led the hundred or so youngsters, myself included, who spent that summer at Midwest (now Tavor) Camp Habonim in Three Rivers, Michigan.

From the moment I got off the bus, on my first day of my first summer at that camp, I fell under his sway. I considered each day of that month to be an opportunity to listen, talk to, and learn from him; while he lead singing, sparked a discussion, or instigated some kuntz (stunt), many of which seem in retrospective fairly outrageous and inappropriate, Leibel dominated my consciousness and helped me see a different way of being a Jew, an American, and in fact a human being than I had imagined. (He as rosh, head of the camp, gave the green light to a program waking children in middle of the night, telling them to get dressed and come into the meeting hall, and informing them that Israel had been invaded and occupied by Arab armies. I imagine the program organizers wanted to know how the children would react to the news that Egyptian and Jordanian forces were marching through Tel Aviv.)

He brought joy to Judaism, laced with what I realize in retrospect was a kind of irony. He never hesitated to articulate the shortcomings of organized American Jewry. Rather, he linked Jewish practice and tradition to social justice, an idea which lay beyond my imagination at that time of racial segregation, rabid anti-Communism, and 1950s consensus politics. By the intensity of his rhetoric, by the fire of his words, he called on us to engage actively in the pursuit of tikkun olam, before the phrase had become so popularized.

Three examples spring to mind. Leibel, in 1958, taught us to sing “We Shall Overcome.” He told us as he introduced the song that civil rights activists had adopted this as their anthem, teaching us, who lived in our own segregated communities, about the Montgomery bus boycott. Later in the 1960s when I began to attend civil rights rallies, often with my Habonim compatriots in Milwaukee, and I heard that song again, all I could say is that I learned it from Leibel. He made the song part of our identity and heritage. I was only in 6th grade, but he in essence prepared me to take part in that great transformative movement.

On yet another occasion, as we rambled down some road in southern Michigan on a camp hike, he stopped and pointed out a group of migrant laborers, bent over as they picked crops under the blistering sun. He described their plight and he changed our song from some quasi-marching ditty to “Hazorim b’Dima,” a song drawn from the Grace After Meals that translates to “those who sow in tears will reap in joy” and that he was using to remind us that our tradition requires we consider these migrant laborers. Finally, towards the end of camp, he gave a talk to the camp as a whole, reminding us of the approaching 13th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At no time in my elementary school class had I ever learned about that event, let alone be prodded to ponder the ethical dilemma posed by the unleashing of atomic bombs on civilians.

Leibel initiated me and the rest of the campers into a world of adult conversation. These issues, he told us, mattered to us. We needed to know that the world in which we lived was flawed. More importantly, he wanted to impress upon us that as Jews in America, we had a moral obligation to take on those flaws and do what we could to fix the world.

Israel obviously played an enormous role in the life of the camp and in Leibel’s engagement with us. Despite having grown up in an intensely Labor Zionist home I had no idea that Zionism itself consisted of multiple ideologies with competing and radically different visions of what constituted an ideal Jewish state. The Israel that Leibel presented reflected Habonim’s twinned commitment to socialism and Zionism, a belief that without an underpinning of social and economic justice, Zionism basically differed little, or not at all, from any other form of nationalism. Leibel did not shy away from describing the other strands of Zionism, all of which lacked that fundamental conjoining of the idea of a Jewish state with the equally compelling idea of socialism, economic justice, and humanitarianism.

Leibel left us in the gloomy days of August 2014 with reports of vast Palestinian civilian casualties in Gaza. Reading those articles on the same day that I read of his passing, seemed more than poignant. They reminded me that the vision of Israel which he espoused and which we imbibed that summer of 1958 was naïve and always flawed, but nevertheless he held up for us a picture of justice and pushed us to think about the complexities inherent in the Zionism project.

The Leibel of Midwest Camp Habonim, just like the Leibel of Mazon and the New Israel Fund and Moment, did not accept the world as it was nor did he think it acceptable to just sit back and ruminate about injustice. He wanted us to act. I brought back from those weeks at camp under Leibel’s magic, a sense, however inchoate at the time, that I too wanted to be critical, hoping to see the world in its complexity, refusing to accept conventional wisdom, and always asking why and how do you know.

It mattered a lot to me that in discussions he validated my contributions. I basked in his compliments on how well I spoke Hebrew, that his father and my father knew each other from Jewish education circles, but perhaps more importantly, I craved his accolades for what I had said when we talked about Zionism, civil rights, Jewish history, or American politics.

Clearly I had a terrible crush on him but one that sprang from the values he espoused and the way he articulated them, from the magnetism of his personality. And it went on in years to come. He and I interacted at numerous points in the 1980s and beyond. In the early 1990s we participated in a Black-Jewish working group organized by Harvard’s W.E. B. DuBois Research Institute. I not only could not bear for others to call him “Leonard,” but I always made sure to sit next to him and was thrilled when we exchanged our own private side comments. It made me feel that he might actually think of me as his equal. I not only looked forward to hearing what he had to say in our rambling and often contentious conversations, but I must admit that it mattered terribly to me if he, and not anyone else, considered my remarks insightful and to the point. For my mind, I never, in Leibel’s presence, actually stopped being the 6th grade camper who hung on his every word.

I never failed to tell him that he, as himself and as an embodiment of Habonim, bumped me on to the road to becoming an historian and particularly one who has devoted her career to studying the history of American Jewry. I wanted him to know that the vision he had imparted to us that hot and humid summer travelled with me. I am richer for having gotten to know him, particularly at such an impressionable age. I am impoverished by his passing.


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