Jacob Stein, the former president of Temple Israel of Great Neck who went on to leadership positions in world Jewry and United States government – died Saturday, Dec. 8. He was 95.
Speakers at his funeral, held in Temple Israel’s sanctuary, included Malcolm Hoenlein, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, a post Stein once held, as well as representatives of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Jewish Theological Seminary, organizations greatly impacted by Stein.
His three children, Stuart, Richard, and Linda Whalen, and two of his six grandchildren also gave eulogies.
“He was a mentor, a guide, a friend to me,” Hoenlein said. “He was a reliable ally, a sounding board.”
He attended the first Hanukkah party celebrated in the White House, which took place when Stein served as President Ronald Reagan’s advisor on Jewish affairs.
Rabbi Paul Drazen, an official of United Synagogue, called Stein “a proud, observant Jew…who lived a full life. He left an impact on generations past and on generations future.”
Reading a letter from Jewish Theological Seminary Chancellor Arnold Eisen, Rabbi David Hoffman said, “Jack Stein demonstrated how much light one person could bring to a community.” He recalled Stein’s fund raising efforts, which helped to “save” the seminary.
Temple Israel Senior Rabbi Howard Stecker referred to Stein as a visionary, citing his early calls for equal Jewish education for both boys and girls, his outreach to intermarried couples, advocacy for same sex marriage and his collaboration with Temple Israel’s late senior rabbi, Mordecai Waxman, to improve the relationship between Jews and the Catholic Church.
“He was and will remain an immense source of illumination for our people,” Stecker said.
His many years in the public eye began simply enough, when he and his wife, Jean, joined Temple Israel 69 years ago, according to an interview with Stein published in the congregation’s newsletter, The Voice, last year.
“We discovered Temple Israel, which was founded the year before, and soon became the young congregation’s 35th member family,” he said. He became chairman of the education committee, Temple Israel vice president, and then the seventh president of the new congregation, which rapidly expanded to over 1,000 member families.
The presidency introduced Stein to the larger sphere of Jewish involvement. He became active in what is now the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the organization of conservative congregations, first as president of METNY, its New York region, and then as international president.
His election to that position was not without controversy. It was the same controversy rocking Temple Israel.
Both the congregation and the Conservative Movement were wrestling with issues that would define the rapidly growing branch of Judaism: participation in the service by women, the degree of religious education to be afforded girls, and the format of the Sabbath service, among others.
“The congregation was a microcosm of the issues facing the Conservative Movement,” he said in The Voice. “I felt I had something to offer.”
He became the only person to challenge the recommended slate of officers in the organization’s history and in 1969 began a four-year tenure as president of United Synagogue.
The Yom Kippur War broke out during his term as chairman of The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which he went on to lead. Seeking to put American Jewry in the best possible light, he came in frequent contact with then U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and members of the Nixon Administration. He participated in meetings with President Richard Nixon and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and played a significant role in having American munitions urgently shipped to Israel to enable it to fight off the then encroaching Arab armies.
He and his late wife, Jean, became friendly with the then ambassador to the United Nations, George H. W. Bush, and his wife, Barbara. They worked closely together to lobby for the release of four Israeli soldiers being held prisoners by Syria. When Bush became vice president, he would, on occasion, call upon Stein for guidance on matters relating to Israel and the American Jewish community.
Stein was appointed a special advisor to President Ronald Reagan, serving in the White House during that administration. His calm and thoughtful demeanor and sage advice made him a valued advisor to President Reagan during battles over the sale of AWACS military aircraft to Saudi Arabia.
In 1986, he visited Israel with Vice President Bush as a member of the “Gang of Eight,” a group of Jewish supporters who encouraged presidential candidate Bush to reach out to Jewish voters.
One day, Stein surprised a bar mitzvah boy when he brought Vice President Bush to Temple Israel to join the congregation during a Sabbath service. The vice president sat in the sanctuary, listening intently as Rabbi Waxman delivered his sermon.
During the Bush presidency, Stein was appointed a member of the United States delegation to the United Nations. He also served as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, Switzerland, and as a member of the Defense Policy Advisory Committee on Trade.
A tour of the Stein Great Neck home in Harbor Hills includes walls of framed certificates of appreciation from Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin “for distinguished service to the State of Israel,” from President Ronald Reagan “for serving as special advisor to the White House,” and from his “dear friend,” President George H. W. Bush. Another wall contains a ceremonial sword originally belonging to a Syrian general, presented to him in appreciation by Israel’s 22nd Brigade in the Golan Heights in December, 1973.
Also on his wall is a certificate presented by the U.S. Congress, through the efforts of Rep. Gary Ackerman, containing remarks made by the congressman on the floor of Congress in 2008. “I use today to seek Congressional recognition of the lifetime of achievement of Jacob Stein,” it says. “During his distinguished career, Jacob, or Jack as his friends refer to him, has made a lasting impact on our community and our nation. As a public, religious, civic and moral leader, his lifetime of achievement deserves both recognition and appreciation.”
Marc Katz is president of Katz Communications.