“He cared deeply about others. When you mourned, he mourned with you, and when you celebrated, he celebrated with you with all his heart and soul,” said Milken President, Metuka Benjamin, when asked about the recently deceased Reform Judaism leader and pioneering founder of Stephen S. Wise Temple, Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin. Zeldin passed away of natural causes at the age of 97 on January 26, 2018.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, into an orthodox family, Zeldin was ordained at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1946 and subsequently moved to Los Angeles to work for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations as the Western Regional Advisor and as the Dean of the College of Jewish Studies in Los Angeles.
Zeldin founded Stephen S. Wise temple in 1964 with only 35 families, and the community grew to be one of the largest Jewish congregations in the entire world, becoming the second-largest synagogue in the United States in 1994.
Zeldin fervently advocated for Jewish education, acting as the founding Dean of Hebrew Union College’s Los Angeles Campus as well as Stephen S. Wise School. “We built the school before we built the temple,” Zeldin said of Stephen S. Wise. Zeldin also had a hand in the establishment of Milken Community Schools, in collaboration with Metuka Benjamin. “He was a visionary,” Benjamin explained. “When he started Stephen S. Wise 50 years ago, he knew that school had to be in the front line of the temple in order to ensure a Jewish future. He was my mentor and I learned so much from him. I saw him as my partner; the one who helped me to realize the success of all of the schools that we created together.” As Lowell Milken recounted, Zeldin was “the most transforming individual I have met in my lifetime.”
Zeldin was certainly an innovator in the reform movement, as well as a man of integrity and kindness. As Benjamin eloquently stated, “he was very personable, positive, and energetic and that transformed all of us who worked with him. He always took calculated risks and they turned into positive successes. I admired him and learned so much from him in many areas, as he was always open to new ideas, which helped all of his schools succeed and become unique institutions.”
Zeldin retired as Senior Rabbi of Stephen S. Wise Temple in 1990 but remained active in the community following his retirement. He was succeeded by Rabbi Eli Herscher, followed by Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback, the Temple’s current rabbi. Zeldin is survived by his children Michael, Karen, Joel, and Terry, as well as his brother, Bernard, eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
Zeldin will be deeply missed by the Milken community and the Los Angeles Jewish community as a whole.