Rabbi Harvey J. Fields, who served as senior rabbi of the historic Wilshire Boulevard Temple for 23 years and played a central role in Los Angeles intergroup relations, died Thursday (Jan. 23) at his home after a long illness. He was 78.
Funeral services will be held at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 26, in the temple’s sanctuary on the Glazer campus, 3663 Wilshire Blvd. The service will be open to the public.
Community leaders, colleagues and family members remembered Fields on Friday for his talent in transforming broad plans and ideas into reality, for blending tradition with innovation, for his personal ethics and for his commitment to creating bonds among the city’s diverse religious and ethnic communities.
Field’s composure and political skills were tested during the 1992 Rodney King riots, when the temple found itself at the center of looting and rioting swirling throughout Koreatown.
Reaching out to his longtime friends in the African-American religious community, Fields helped organize the “Hands Across Los Angeles” demonstration, which saw thousands of Angelenos join hands across a 10-mile swath of the central city.
When Fields arrived in Los Angeles in 1985, after serving congregations in Boston, New Jersey and Canada, he had to step into the shoes of the synagogue’s legendary leader, Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin, who had led the congregation for an incredible 69 years.
During the Magnin epoch, some innovations were left behind, and it was Fields’ job to guide the transition of religious practice and worship out of the classic Reform Judaism and into a more traditional form of worship, including through music and dress, observed Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, who succeeded Fields as senior rabbi at the temple in 2003.
Fields also foresaw the changing demographics of the Los Angeles Jewish community as it moved from east to west, He provided the impetus and fundraising skill to establish the new, second campus for the congregation, the Audrey and Sidney Irmas Campus on the Westside, in the process reversing the hemorrhaging of membership in he congregation, which had declined from 2,600 families to 1,900.
Fields was an ardent supporter of Israel and served on the board of governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel; Fields gave his wife and three children an unforgettable experience when, in mid-career, he took off for one year to live in Israel, where they could frolic on the beaches of Netanya.
“My dad saw the positive in every person and situation,” remembered daughter Debra Fields, with her brother, Joel Fields, adding, “he always took the high road.”
During Fields’ last seven years, following a severe stroke, he had great difficulty in retrieving and articulating words and turned enthusiastically to painting, his daughter noted.
He also continued, but was unable to complete, his work on a new commentary on the Prophets to supplement his popular three-volume commentary on the Torah, as well as a historical novel on his great-grandfather’s settlement in farming community in Dakota in the 1880s.
Fields’ love of Israel did not stop him from criticizing the policies of the Jewish State at times. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Los Angeles in 1997, Fields warned him that ties between American Jewry and Israel were being “torched” by the prime minister’s support for the Orthodox rabbinate’s domination of religious affairs, the Los Angeles Times reported at the time.
Among Fields’ friends and colleagues who responded to The Journal’s request for recollections, were:
Pastor William F. Epps of the Second Baptist Church of Los Angeles: “Rabbi Fields and I often exchanged pulpits and addressed our respective congregations. He was a remarkable man who, as founding chair of the Interfaith Coalition to Heal Los Angeles played a key role in Black-Jewish relations.”
Howard Bernstein, president of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, 1994-96: “Rabbi Fields was one of the most significant influences of my life. He was both a level-headed man and a man of vision.”
David Lehrer, president of Community Advocates: “In the 1990s, when Harvey chaired the Jewish Federations Community Relations Committee and I was executive director of the regional Anti-Defamation League, we worked closely together on intergroup relations. To describe Harvey, I think of such words as decent, straight-forward, with a lack of pretensions.”
Lionel Bell, president of both the Jewish Federation and Wilshire Boulevard Temple in the 1990s: “Harvey was a wonderful rabbi, a humanist of the first class, and one of the finest men I have ever known.”
Stanley Gold: “Harvey was a great and wise man, who worked passionately for religious pluralism in Israel.”
Fields was a native of Portland, Ore. and a graduate of UCLA, Hebrew Union College and Rutgers University.
He is survived by Sybil, his wife of 55 years, children Debra (Jonathan Silberman), Joel (Jessica) and Rachel (Hanan Prishkolnik) and seven grandchildren.
Contributions in Rabbi Fields’ memory may be sent to Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
Sunday’s services will be transmitted at http://wbtla.org/live.