London rabbi recalled for interfaith work

Rabbi Joel Ira Wittstein, spiritual leader of Temple Israel in London, Ont. since 1987, died at his home on Jan. 28, of cancer. He was 74.

A native of Cincinnati, Rabbi Wittstein will be remembered not only for his congregational leadership and personal integrity, but also for his interfaith and interdenominational work in the greater London community.

In addition to teaching Hebrew at Huron University College at the University of Western Ontario (UWO) for some 20 years – as he had at the University of Cincinnati – Rabbi Wittstein co-founded the Centre for Catholic-Jewish Learning at King’s University College at UWO. He also established Abraham’s Café, a project to foster dialogue and understanding among Jews, Christians and Muslims.

As well, he organized an annual community-wide Shabbat service for Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews to promote co-operation and understanding, and contributed to program notes and an information forum dealing with anti-Semitic themes in St. John’s Passion at Parry Sound’s Festival of the Sound, where he was honoured last summer.

The rabbi was an accomplished poet, classical music lover, expert pool player, and “a mensch,” Rabbi Daniel Gottlieb told an estimated 600 mourners at his funeral at the London Jewish Community Centre. “[H]e was a gentle soul, compassionate and caring, empathetic and loving.”

Rabbi Gottlieb also remembered his friend as “erudite and articulate… he would present even the most challenging ideas and complex arguments in an interesting and engaging fashion.”

When Rabbi Wittstein applied for the position in London in 1987, he and his wife Ailene were running a bed-and-breakfast in St. Ignace, Mich., where he made award-winning cinnamon rolls to serve their guests.

A student of Classics and Latin, the rabbi originally studied in Cincinnati to become a teacher. He began his rabbinic studies in Israel in the early 1960s, but would not complete them until 1975. After the stint in Israel, he studied on a Fulbright Scholarship in Greece, where he taught high school English before returning to Cincinnati to eventually become a Jewish educator.

Serving at the city’s Isaac M. Wise Temple, he met  – and hired – Ailene, also a Jewish educator. They married in 1981, a second marriage for both. The same year, they moved to West Bloomfield, Mich., where they worked at Temple Israel before moving to the northern part of the state and opening their bed and breakfast.

As a couple, they had travelled across North America doing seminars for Reform Jewish educators. Rabbi Gottlieb, who met them in 1980 at a conference, said they were highly regarded for their creativity and dynamism.

For his doctorate in education at the University of Cincinnati, Rabbi Wittstein researched moral development in early childhood. He also completed his rabbinic studies in Cincinnati, at Hebrew Union College.

But he didn’t pursue a congregational career until later, continuing to devote the next few years to Jewish education.

It wasn’t until they were living in St. Ignace that Rabbi Wittstein “fell in love with that whole role” of serving a congregation, after being asked to fill in for a colleague at an Orthodox synagogue in Sault Ste. Marie, Ailene told The CJN.

Karen Ross, who now lives in Toronto, chaired the committee that hired Rabbi Wittstein for what would become Temple Israel, a fledgling congregation known at the time as the London Jewish Family Association. Under Rabbi Wittstein’s leadership, it grew from 40 families to 140.

Ross, who became a family friend, recalls an “immediate connection” the first time she spoke to the rabbi, based on their shared passion for Reform Judaism. “He just seemed very easy to talk to, totally unpretentious… He was not a chatty person at all, but if you asked him a question, you got a really knowledgeable, well thought-out answer.”

Rabbi Michal Shekel, who has been serving as the temple’s interim rabbi since last year, said Rabbi Wittstein was “quite a force in that community. He was a man of integrity and a fabulous role model.”

Rabbi Wittstein leaves his wife Ailene, sons Eric and Ilan Wittstein, of Brooklyn and Baltimore respectively; Eric and Jonathan Avner, of Cincinnati and Austin, Texas, respectively, and five grandchildren.