More than 800 friends, congregants and admirers of Rabbi Harvey J. Fields gathered in the sanctuary of Wilshire Boulevard Temple on the afternoon of Jan. 26 to pay their final respects to the temple’s longtime spiritual leader, scholar and community activist, who died Jan. 23 at 78 following a lengthy illness.
Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, the temple’s senior rabbi, and Fields’ three children shared remembrances of a man who transformed ambitious plans into reality, blended tradition with innovation, and created bonds among the city’s diverse ethnic and religious communities.
Fields’ three adult children, Debra, Joel and Rachel Fields, recalled a father and grandfather who was always there for them, who pointed the way to the high road by word and example, and who went all out for his family, his congregation and his city.
In particular, they cited his indomitable courage following a severe stroke seven years ago, which limited his ability to recall and articulate words. He took to painting as an alternate form of expression and also continued to work on a new commentary on the prophets to complement his popular three-volume commentary on the Torah, as well as on a historical novel about his great-grandfather, who was part of a farming community in the Dakota Territory in the early 1880s.
Fields’ composure and political skills were tested during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, sparked by the verdict in the Rodney King beating trial, when the temple found itself at the center of mob violence raging throughout the city’s Koreatown.
Reaching out to his long-time friends in the African-American religious community, Fields helped organize the Hands Across Los Angeles demonstration, which saw 15,000 Angelenos join hands along a 10-mile stretch of Western Avenue.
Fields arrived in Los Angeles in 1985, stepping into the shoes of the legendary Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin, the “Bishop of Hollywood,” who led Wilshire Boulevard Temple for 69 years. Previously, Fields had served congregations in Boston and New Jersey and at Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple.
Under Fields’ leadership, Los Angeles’ pioneer Reform temple returned to more traditional forms of worship, music and attire. Foreseeing the long-term shift of the Los Angeles Jewish community from east to west, he convinced the congregation to build a second campus on the Westside, a move that reversed a decline in membership, which currently stands at 2,400 families.
He was an ardent supporter of Israel and served on the board of governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel but could be critical of some of the policies of the Jewish state’s leaders.
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.
Pastor William Epps of the Second Baptist Church of Los Angeles remembered him fondly to the Journal. “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.”
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.
Kate Berman died. Survived by husband Dennis; daughter Deborah Sloan; son Michael; niece Robin Barte; nephew Ray; 2 great-grandnephews; friends Ilene Bell, Nicola Lamb. Groman Eden
John Biren died Jan. 7 at 93. Survived by daughters Dyanne (Giovanni) Aponte, Renee (Patrick) Kleaveland; sons Curt (Caroline), Eric (Sarah); 11 grandchildren; 2 great-grandchildren. Hillside
Jack Borys died Jan. 6 at 89. Survived by daughter Debra (Alan Fishstein); son David (Erica); brother Morris (Ernestine). Mount Sinai
Yrena Bugajski Kirszenbaum died Jan. 6 at 95. Survived by sons Richard (Dalia), Marek (Veronique); 5 grandchildren; 2 great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai
Tina Farash died Jan. 6 at 61. Survived by father Albert; sister Barbara. Home of Peace
Brian Feld died Jan. 6 at 42. Survived by mother Bonnie Macdonald; sister Melissa; brother Ian Macdonald; nephew Bradley. Mount Sinai
Ronald Kinwald died Jan. 5 at 77. Survived by sister Rabbi Sally (Jay) Olins. Mount Sinai
Pearl Mayman died Jan. 6 at 99. Survived by daughters Toby (J.H.B. Kean), Myrna (Alex Bernhard); son Lee; 1 grandchild; nieces and nephews.
Fred Robbins died Jan. 5 at 99. Survived by daughter Sheila (Robert) Forst; 2 grandchildren; 3 great-grandchildren. Hillside
Janice Winick died April 23, 2013, at 56. Survived by husband Frank; daughters Amy, Heidi; son Jason; 3 grandchildren; mother-in-law Rosyln; father-in-law Mitchell; brothers Mark, Randy. Groman Eden