Harvey J. Fields dies at 78; rabbi led Wilshire Boulevard Temple

Rabbi Harvey J. Fields, who for 18 years presided over Los Angeles’ oldest synagogue, Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and was prominent in interfaith efforts to mend race relations after the 1992 riots, died Thursday at his home in Beverly Hills. He was 78.

His health had deteriorated after a stroke seven years ago, said his daughter, Debra Fields.

Fields became senior rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in 1985 after the death of legendary Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin, who had led the historic Reform synagogue for nearly 70 years.

Rabbi Harvey Fields: The obituary of Rabbi Harvey Fields in the Jan. 25 LATExtra section said he introduced music into the services at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. It should have said he was the first to bring a singer from the choir loft down to the pulpit level, which later led to the hiring of the temple’s first trained cantor. —

Known as an innovator, Fields introduced music in temple services, eventually hiring Wilshire’s first trained cantor.

He also updated the congregation’s liturgy and encouraged the wearing of prayer shawls by rabbis.


His changes reflected trends in Reform Judaism to restore some traditional practices that had been shunned during Magnin’s era as too ethnic.

Fields “was able to bring about a more contemporary mode of worship, which ironically was in some ways more traditional,” said Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, who succeeded Fields as senior rabbi in 2003.

Challenged by declining membership, Fields also spearheaded the temple’s expansion to the Westside in the 1990s with the construction of the $35-million Audrey and Sydney Irmas Campus in West Los Angeles.

The new campus, which includes an early childhood center and elementary school, helped bolster membership from a low of 1,800 families to 2,400 families today, Leder said.

As chair of the Interreligious Council of Southern California, Fields worked to improve relations among religious leaders. He was founding chair of the council’s Interfaith Coalition to Heal L.A., organized in response to the 1992 riots sparked by verdicts in the Rodney King beating trial.

He helped plan “Hands Across L.A.,” which brought 15,000 Angelenos of various ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds to a 10-mile stretch of Western Avenue for a demonstration of racial solidarity.

The idea for the event, held on a Sunday afternoon two months after the riots, was planted by the Rev. Cecil L. “Chip” Murray of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church.

“In conversation I talked about ‘hands across L.A.’ He took it and made it reality,” Murray said in an interview Friday. “His hands and his feet were everywhere.”

During the event, Fields helped manage a block of Wilshire Boulevard at Western Avenue, an area that had been heavily damaged in the violence. A gas station across the street from Wilshire Boulevard Temple had been burned down.

“We are trying to demonstrate that we are one neighborhood, intertwined with one another, and that what happens in South-Central and North Hollywood and Koreatown affects all of us,” Fields said during the mass rally.

Born on Aug. 26, 1935, in Portland, Ore., Fields earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature from UCLA in 1958 and was ordained in 1963 after completing rabbinical studies at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles and Cincinnati. He later earned a doctorate in American foreign policy at Rutgers University.

He served at temples in Boston and New Brunswick, N.J., before becoming senior rabbi at Canada’s largest Reform synagogue, Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, in 1978.

He moved to Los Angeles in 1982 to become an assistant rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, which held summer camps he had attended as a child. In 1985 he succeeded senior Rabbi Alfred Wolf, who had led the temple for a year following Magnin’s death in 1984.

A frequent visitor to Israel, Fields was a former president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis and former chair of the Jewish Community Relations Committee of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation.

He is survived by his wife of 54 years, Sybil; three children, Debra Fields of Studio City, Joel Fields of New York and Rachel Prishkolnik of Tel Mond, Israel; a brother, a sister and seven grandchildren.