Rabbi Harvey J. Fields, who for 18 years has presided over the oldest and one of the most prominent synagogues in Los Angeles, retired this weekend with praise for the state of interfaith relations and a warning over the future of Jewish identity in Southern California.
Fields, 67, is stepping down as senior rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, the historic domed Reform synagogue in the Mid-Wilshire district that is the successor to the region’s first Jewish congregation. A rabbi for 40 years, Fields, who was honored at a testimonial dinner Sunday night, will be succeeded by Associate Rabbi Steven Z. Leder.
Long an advocate of dialogue and reconciliation among Jews, African Americans and Muslims, a central figure in efforts to heal the city after the 1992 riots and a staunch but sometimes scolding defender of Israel, Fields was reflective and unsparing in summing up the accomplishments and challenges facing the nation’s second-largest Jewish community.
“We’re a fabulous community. We’re not yet crested at our potentials. That will take a lot of leadership, of shoulders against the wheels, to make it work,” Field said in an interview. “But it will work.”
The challenges are several, he said. Although clergy of different faiths and races continue to build bridges of dialogue in one of the nation’s most religiously and culturally diverse metropolitan areas, such efforts are not often reflected in the daily lives of most congregations and their members, he said.
Jewish organizations, including synagogues and service programs under the auspices of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, have never been better at meeting human needs, Fields said. Yet, he said, many younger Jews are forgetting the virtues of generosity and giving to Jewish and civic causes.
Fields said the failings on both counts -- intergroup relations and building a stronger Jewish community -- can be attributed in part to a search for Jewish identity and meaning in religious rituals and outward forms of Jewish observances.
“One of the things I hear over and over again is just a lot of ‘God talk,’ and it sort of is absent of ‘human talk’ and about responsibilities of us as human beings,” Fields said.
He said many younger Jews are seeking meaning and identity in rituals and acts of personal piety, such as wearing prayer shawls at Shabbat services. That is fine, as far as it goes, Fields said. But ritual and public piety, he insisted, must be linked to action.
“If it’s not finding its meaning in rituals that speak to us about responsibilities to God and to other human beings -- those for me are the same -- then we’re simply taking people down a primrose path that leads nowhere in terms of the future,” he said.
During his 21 years at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, 18 of them as the congregation’s senior rabbi, Fields was at the center of efforts to bring unity to the city’s many diverse groups. He was among those who planned the “Hands Across L.A.” demonstration of civic solidarity after the 1992 rioting. For an hour, thousands of Angelenos joined hands across a 10-mile section of the Central City. Fields also served as founding chairman of the Interfaith Coalition to Heal L.A.
A frequent visitor to Israel, a past president of the Board of Rabbis and a fund-raiser for Jewish causes, including a stint on the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency -- an international body that promotes Jewish unity and projects -- Fields could nonetheless be unsparing in his criticism of Israeli policies when he thought they were wrong. For example, he rebuked Benjamin Netanyahu, then Israel’s prime minister, when Netanyahu visited Los Angeles in 1997. Fields said bridges of unity between American Jews and Israel were being “torched” by Netanyahu’s support for the continued dominance of Israel’s Orthodox rabbinate over religious affairs in Israel.
Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, vice chairman of the board, said, “There are rabbis and congregations who, because of their passion, dedication, leadership and congregations’ ... prestige and history, combine to play a leading role in community affairs. Rabbi Harvey Fields is one of those rabbis.”
“Harvey was always a voice of reason and a voice of peace,” said the Rev. J. B. Hardwick, senior minister at Praises of Zion Missionary Baptist Church, who was co-chairman of the Alliance of Black-Jewish Clergy with Fields in 1987.
While Fields’ interfaith efforts with Muslims and Christians are well known, a quiet attempt to reach out to modern Orthodox Jews in Los Angeles is remembered by Orthodox Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City. The two rabbis put together a Torah study group made up of about 20 members from each of their congregations. They would choose a Bible text and then offer their differing interpretations, followed by a dialogue.
Some people, both Reform and Orthodox, might have criticized the program, Muskin said, “but we thought it was worthwhile.”
In his 18 years as senior rabbi at the landmark synagogue, Fields has, by all accounts, transformed the 2,500-member family congregation, renewing emphasis on Jewish education, particularly in Jewish camp settings.
Fields also built a new Audrey and Sydney Irmas Campus on the Westside as the Jewish population shifted from the historic Mid-Wilshire district. As of this month, he said, capital costs have reached $35 million. The campus includes a small synagogue, a courtyard, an elementary school and facilities for youth and adult education programs.
“We were able to assure the future of a great congregation,” Fields said.
“That was one of the things that worried me, that we were somehow a leaky boat and that if we did not have a congregational address close to where our people lived, we would become more and more distant and irrelevant to their lives.”