Young scholar’s memory to be honored at JTS
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Young scholar’s memory to be honored at JTS

It wasn’t supposed to end like this.

Just over a year ago, Leah Levitz Fishbane was 3′ years old; happily married to Dr. Eitan Fishbane, an up-and-coming young scholar; the mother of nearly 4-year-old Aderet and about two trimesters away from giving birth to another baby. She was also an unusually promising graduate student, working under Brandeis University’s Dr. Jonathan Sarna on a dissertation about young Jewish leaders of the 1880s, a group particularly relevant today. Her passions for Jewish living, her family, Jewish history, her friends, her life, and her work inextricably connected, she seemed destined for a life of love and leadership.

But she also had an undiagnosed brain tumor that mimicked some of the problems of early pregnancy; within a day of its diagnosis, she was dead, her family and friends in shocked-speechless grief, her promise ended.

Now, a year later, her husband is honoring her memory, celebrating her life and her work, and suggesting a way forward with "Jewish Renaissance and Revival in America," a conference to be held at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan on Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

"The talks will be partly personal and partly academic," Eitan Fishbane, an assistant professor of Jewish thought at JTS, said. "I decided to put this together because at the time of her death Leah was working on her dissertation about a group of young religious leaders, intellectuals, who lived in the late 19th century, mostly in Philadelphia and New York, and went on in their more mature years to create some of the great institutions of American Jewish life, including JTS and the Jewish Publication Society. Leah was particularly interested in them when they were younger, in how they were trying to affect a kind of transformation of religious life, how they sought to emphasize the important of Shabbat observance, and particularly in focusing attention on the importance of Shabbat in the home.

"These were the forerunners of Conservative Judaism in America. They created a kind of circle of fellowship that sought to transform American Jewish life in their day in ways that are clearly contemporary."

The speakers will talk about Leah Fishbane both as scholar and as a person. "I selected the speakers first for their mentoring or formative role for Leah, and also because their work somehow reflected some of these issues in American Jewish history," Eitan Fishbane said.

Sarna, the keynote speaker, is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History and director of the Hornstein Jewish professional leadership program at Brandeis. He said that Leah Fishbane was a historian, deeply engrossed in the world she studied, but she also was keenly alive to its echoes in today’s Jewish world. The subjects of her work, he said, were "people who shared the goal of revitalizing American Jewish life, and that was what she really wanted to try to understand. They were not all alike religiously, but they all shared a commitment to that." They were liberal Jews, but "they were not Reform. Many of them felt that Reform Judaism had not succeeded in winning over their generation. In the long run, many of them ended up as part of the new Conservative movement; this really was the prehistory of the Conservative movement, and in the end had an impact on changing the Reform movement as well.

"Another interesting thing is that these folks didn’t become rabbis. Mostly they became communal leaders. The most famous of them probably was Cyrus Adler" — who was the first and until Dr. Arnold Eisen, who holds the position now, the only non-rabbi to be JTS chancellor — "who was, I guess, a kind of lay rabbi. In part the problem was that then the only place to study for the rabbinate in the United States was Hebrew Union College, and that was exactly what they didn’t want. Instead they became doctors, businessmen, and civic leaders, but they all were involved in creating and supporting Jewish institutions, Jewish education, Jewish scholarship, and Jewish newspapers."

"I think that many young Jews today have taken a certain amount of strength and inspiration from the knowledge that previous generations of young Jews have emerged at particular moments of American Jewish history and have managed through their efforts to strengthen, revitalize, and transform American Jewish life. I think that these young Jews think that it’s time to do that again. These young Jews are talking about the discontinuities that will promote Jewish continuity, and they feel that they are very much standing in the shoes of Cyrus Adler and Solomon Solis-Cohen and Henrietta Szold and all the rest of them."

Sarna knew Fishbane as a scholar, but he also knew her as a person. She had finished three chapters of her thesis. "I am graduating three students this year, and I always feel that Leah will be the missing one," he said. "I’ve been teaching for some 30 years, and I would say that this is the worst of the tragedies I have known."

The Fishbanes had lived in Teaneck for about eight months before she died. Before that, they lived in Los Angeles, where they became very close friends with Rabbi Sharon Brous, the founder of Ikar, a Conservative shul there, and Brous’s husband, David Light. Brous is scheduled to speak at the conference; instead of presenting a scholarly paper she will talk about her friend. The two young couples and their children spent many Shabbatot together. As Sarna knew both parts of Leah Fishbane, the scholar and the family person, but knew the scholar far better, so too did Brous know both parts. To her, though, Fishbane was first a wife, a mother, and someone always working on balancing the varied parts of her life.

"She was an extraordinary person and really a good friend," Brous said. "Her death tore our hearts apart. This was the community where they really settled for the first time as a family, and they built the community around themselves. They made Shabbes for all of us. They invited people over for seudah shlisheet week after week, so suddenly there was a practice in our community of seudah shlisheet. And they were hysterically funny together; you’d never expect it but there was a goofball side of her. She’d make Eitan totally goofy too. They’d recite lines from bad movies over and over again and they’d crack each other us, and crack us up too.

"And there also was a deeply soulful side to them. They brought niggunim that we’d never heard before. I just think of them sitting at the table for hours and hours on Friday nights and Shabbes afternoons, with their eyes closed, pounding on the tables."

So, Brous said, in a way the Fishbanes and their community re-enacted the communities about which Leah Fishbane’s subjects dreamed. "Every Shabbes that we had together the table was full of laughter and song and conversation and the important issues of the day.

"She was an amazing person. She is still so present for all of us. I feel like we can still hear her voice."

Other speakers include Dr. Arthur Kiron of the University of Pennsylvania, Rabbi Lance Sussman of Cong. Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, Pa., Dr. Shuly Rubin Schwartz of JTS, Dr. Riv-Ellen Prell of the University of Minnesota, Dr. David Kaufman of HUC-JIR, Dr. Eugene Sheppard of Brandeis, and Eisen of JTS.

Eitan Fishbane hopes to present the conference proceedings in a volume that he and Sarna will edit.

To go to the conference, register in advance by calling (‘1′) 678-880’ or e-mailing publicevents@jtsa.edu

 

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