Moses I. Feuerstein: An Appreciation

by | in People

imageMoe Feuerstein, a man with a vision of the role of religion in life—a legend in his time. To be sure, Moe was a real person, with feelings, emotions, sensitivities. He was a loving husband for sixty-five years to his dear wife and partner, Shirley; a rightfully proud father, grandfather and great-grandfather; a warm, compassionate friend to a multitude of people and a mentor, particularly in communal life, to so, so many of us who came after him.

Indeed, he embodied life itself. The well-known Rashi in Bereishit, describing the impact of a righteous person upon the community in which he lives, fits Moe like a glove: “While the tzaddik is in the city, he is its glory, its splendor, its beauty.”

So, how does one adequately describe a legend? How does one say good-bye to someone larger than life? Or, I should ask, can one ever really say good-bye to such a person?

It seems to me that Moe’s impact on our lives can best be described by focusing on three separate yet overlapping aspects of his multi-faceted personality.

First, his local community. Although I was never a member of the Brookline community in Boston, the gracious hospitality that filled his and Shirley’s home is legendary. It was a home away from home for hundreds upon hundreds of college students who attended the renowned academic institutions in the area.

As it was put by someone who personally benefited from the gracious welcome extended by the Feuersteins to one and all:

For religious and becoming-religious college kids in the 1970s in Boston, the Feuersteins were the aristocracy. It was their home to which you wanted to be invited on Shabbat. They were living proof that Torah and worldly success could co-exist, yet they made their guests feel at home, no matter their background or circumstance. Mr. Feuerstein was warm and dignified, elegant yet accessible, pious and yet truly modest about that piety.

And, then, of course, there was Moe’s association, and that of his sainted father, Samuel, with the Maimonides School in Boston, the launching pad for the religious growth of the country’s Northeast Jews. To be sure, the school was conceived and organized by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (known reverently as the Rav) and his dynamic rebbetzin, but it was the tandem of the Soloveitchiks and the Feuersteins that nurtured it into a vibrant institution that enables its students to imbibe its unique religious and secular education and make such a mark on America’s Jewish life.

To paraphrase a comment made by the Rav in eulogizing the late Rabbi Eliezer Silver: If only the individuals who were the beneficiaries of Moe’s kindness had come to his funeral, the sidewalks of Brookline would have been overflowing.

It goes without saying that the relationship Moe developed with his rebbe, the Rav, in working on communal endeavors flowered into the very warm, personal partnership that was a beauty to behold whenever anyone saw them together.

Second, the Orthodox Union (OU).

While it would be wrong to pigeonhole Moe’s organizational interests to just one institution—witness his leadership (with that of his father) of Torah Umesorah and other national and international Jewish organizations—the fact remains that he is most identified with the OU. Moe’s two decades of leadership made a lasting impression on the OU that continues today. The statistics are easy to enumerate: twelve years as OU president (1954-1966); the creation of NCSY, the OU’s youth movement; the flowering of the Kashrut Department; the extension of the welcome mat to future leaders of the Orthodox community and on and on and on.

But we’re not just interested in cold statistics. Moe laid the foundation for the flourishing organization that exists today. If the OU can proudly point to its service to the developmentally disabled through Yachad or to its programs for deaf children through Our Way, it is only because Moe laid the groundwork when he established NCSY. If the organization can cite with pride its burgeoning activity on the college campus through its Heshe & Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC), it is but a reflection of the feelings of achrayut (responsibility) instilled in the OU by Moe during his stewardship. If we can proudly travel through the length and breadth of this world and find food certified as kosher, it is because Moe, together with his partner, the late Nathan K. Gross, had the foresight to recognize the critical importance of the availability of kosher food to those who wish to engage in the activities of the world without sacrificing religious principles.

I once heard that at the opening of Disney World some years ago, an observer remarked to Walt Disney’s nephew that it was a pity Walt was not there to see what had been developed from his vision. To which the nephew supposedly answered that Walt had seen it and that was why they were there.

That, in a nutshell, was the vision that Moe implanted in the OU.

And finally, a word about Moe’s contribution to the development of the relationship of the Orthodox community with Klal Yisrael. In this area, Moe had no peers. He was the trailblazer in bringing the Orthodox community into the overall Jewish community. He carried out in his very being the mandate of the Rav, who taught his talmidim (students) that Orthodox Jews have a special role to play within the overall community. As the Rav once put it, briefly but succinctly: “The Torah is not afraid. We do not have to retreat into isolation or solitude because the street is contaminated. To retreat means to lose.”*

During his twelve-year tenure as OU president, the OU’s incipient involvement in the overall community flourished.

A powerful and activist spokesman for Torah causes, Moe was a giant in klal work and had many, many talmidim through the years; I am proud to consider myself one of them. Those of us who devoted some of our time and talent to the klal under his tutelage were afforded the rare opportunity to observe and learn from a giant. He taught us that the principles upon which we, individually and collectively, should properly mold our positions on a broad range of matters, including those touching upon the very essence of the Jewish community.

Those lessons, whether delivered directly or via example, came across clearly and unequivocally. First, we should be committed to the proposition that the Torah community has a responsibility that far transcends the group itself. Moe believed that we have something unique and valuable to contribute to the Jewish community at large and that it would be a total abdication of responsibility for us to refrain from involving ourselves in the general welfare of Jews everywhere. Second, he believed that we should not simply react to positions taken by the “representatives” of the community, self-appointed or otherwise; we should be involved on the ground floor as those positions are formulated and developed, and later when they are adopted.

It was through his inspiration that the OU became actively involved in many umbrella organizations reflecting the Jewish community at large, whether it was the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (now called the Jewish Council for Political Affairs), the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies (which later merged and became UJA-Federation of New York), local Jewish community councils and so many others. But membership alone was never enough. Indeed, Moe felt that passive representation was essentially an oxymoron. That would be a disservice, he believed, both to the overall community for failure to contribute to the formulation of its public positions and to the Orthodox community for allowing others to speak on its behalf by default. He taught us that our representation of the Orthodox community should be undertaken with a feeling of confidence and pride; he despised anything that even smacked of apologetics as being subversive and self-defeating. He taught us that it is important to have confidence in the position one is espousing and that it is at least equally important that such confidence be fully reflected in the presentation.

So, in conclusion, we return to where we started. How does one say good-bye to a legend? The answer is simple: You don’t! The legend lives on and on and on, and it is our responsibility to ensure that the vision and principles that gave it birth continue to imbue our thoughts and actions as the years go by.

Julius Berman, a former president of the OU (1978-84), is the chairman of the International Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and was the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and a host of other national Jewish organizations.

*The Rav repeated this charge many times. For an excellent exposition of this thesis, see Abraham Besdin, Reflections of the Rav, vol. 1 (New Jersey, 1993), 169-77.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Summer 2009.

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