Something Leibel Fein Taught Me

August 15th, 2014

by Rachel Lerner, Senior VP for Community Relations

Twelve years ago, when I worked in the organized Jewish community, one of my jobs was to write talking points every time there was a report of violence in Israel and the Palestinian Territory. It was 2002, and the Second Intifada was raging, so I was very busy. 

On July 22nd 2002, when Israel used a one-ton bomb to target terrorist and Hamas leader Salah Shehade in his home, killing him, but also killing eight children and other innocents, and wounding more than 50, I set to work explaining it. I wrote a fairly pat set of talking points, regurgitated from those I'd written dozens of times before.

At the time, I had misgivings about doing this, and many questions about the operation, but I did not let any of those questions or doubts stop me from doing my job.

A week later, Leibel wrote this piece for the Forward, which mirrored, parody style, my talking points almost word for word, rightly calling out the callousness and reflexiveness with which I, and others in the Jewish community, explained away and justified actions and reports that at the very least warranted some examination and questions. With his sharp language and biting humor he exposed our utter lack of reflection and compassion.

I never forgot this. And those talking points still haunt me. Years later, when I was working at J Street, I told Leibel this story. I told him how – even though he did not know me at the time – he shamed me, and how grateful I was to him for holding a mirror up to me.

I will forever be grateful to Leibel for his truth. It stung, but it taught me that I am responsible for my words and that I am obligated to speak my conscience and my values even when it’s hard, even when it’s not popular. Some days I succeed and some days I fail – badly, but Leibel’s lesson – and his incisive voice – will forever be with me, a part of my conscience.

In Jewish tradition, we say when someone passes, “may his memory be a blessing.” Leibel Fein was truly a blessing – for the Jewish community and for the world at large. I hope his family is comforted by the knowledge that pieces of his wisdom and his spirit, his courage and his strength live on in so many of us who had the privilege to read him, to meet him, to know him and to love him.

Zichrono Livracha.