October 26, 2010

A brother’s tribute to Leonard Fein

By Sarah Steinberg

A brothers tribute photo

Rashi and Leonard (Leibel) Fein (z''l)

This past Sunday, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger marked its 25th Anniversary with a luncheon honoring its founder, Leonard (Leibel) Fein. It was a beautiful day in New York City, and the room was filled with guests eager to express their respect and sincere admiration for all that MAZON and Leibel have accomplished . Leibel’s brother Rashi provided his introduction – a touching tribute to a man who has served as a pillar of the Jewish community for over 35 years:

A few years ago, I had occasion to offer some public remarks about my brother, Leibel. It was an evening affair and there was a certain levity to the occasion. The wine flowed and so did the humor. But here we are on a Sunday afternoon. Humor? It is not an accident that Saturday Night Live is not televised as Sunday Afternoon Live. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that my remarks today will be of a serious nature.
There is much that I could tell you about Leibel. But much of what I could tell, many of you already know, and that which you don’t, though interesting, most probably is unimportant. So I will not read from a who’s who and I will not tell you of Leibel’s many accomplishments. Instead I will introduce Leibel by telling you a story about Rabbi Menaham Mendel of Linsk.

It is said that Rabbi Menaham Mendel of Linsk once stated: “On Shabbat Hagadol – the Shabbat before Pesach – it is customary for rabbis to discuss Jewish law. I will do so by quoting Maimonides who ruled that at the seder even the poorest person must eat matzo and must drink four cups of wine. That is the law. Yet Maimonides also reminded us that under Torah law cheating and swindling is forbidden at all times and under all circumstances. So,” continued Rabbi Menaham Mendel of Minsk, “we are confronted by a dilemma: what should a poor person do if she or he cannot afford to buy matzo and wine honestly and yet is forbidden to do so dishonestly? Must one violate a law and if so which law?

Rabbi Menaham Mendel continued, “I must tell you that acting alone neither the poor person nor our greatest rabbis and scholars can reconcile the contradiction or resolve the question posed by Maimonides. But there is an answer and a way out. The community, acting together, can reconcile the texts. How? A city can do so if the inhabitants thereof contribute to the Passover fund to help all who need help. Then the poor person can have the matzo and wine and have them honestly.”

A nice – no, an important – story. Those who have been paying attention surely can guess why I tell it, why I call on Jessie and Rachel, Leibel’s daughters, to read it at our Pesach seder, and why after they and others have done so, I ask Leibel to lead us in ho-lachmo-any inviting all who are hungry to come and eat.

Because, because Leibel conceived of and created MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, which is today’s answer to the dilemma posed by Maimonides. Through MAZON the community can act together to provide food to the hungry so that they can feed themselves and their children without having to steal the loaf of bread and the bottle of milk. By its twenty-fifth anniversary, MAZON raised $50 million dollars in the fight against hunger. Of course, it hasn’t solved – and by itself cannot solve – the problem of hunger, but it has made a difference in dramatic situations like Darfur, after the tsunami, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and in countless situations where hunger is not an acute, but a chronic condition. And all this because one person had an idea and got others to join in acting on it. And I stress the last words for they are the key. After all, all of us have ideas. All would write a letter to the editor. All of us would do many things, but just don’t quite get around to doing them, to acting on our ideals and ideas, to translating our wishes into reality.

But Leibel did. And so we are here to recognize Leibel’s vision, his translation of vision into action, and his reminder that one person can make a difference.

I am proud of Leibel, proud of the various institutions and programs that he has helped bring into being” Moment Magazine, MAZON, literacy programs that exist in numerous cities across our land. It is an amazing story. But how should I introduce him. My dictionary reserves the term “entrepreneur” for those who build new enterprises in the for-profit sector; that is, a person who organizes and manages a business undertaking assuming the risk for the sake of the profit. That is not what my brother is about. Nor is he a venture capitalist, seeking out and investing in ideas generated by others. But introduce him I must, and so I supposed I can do no better than to present the 2010 version of Rabbi Menaham Mendel of Linsk, your friend and my brother, Leibel Fein of Boston.

– Rashi Fein is professor of Economics of Medicine, Emeritus at Harvard Medical School.