Judah L. Magnes
Class of 1894

©Published on Oct 28, 1948

Judah L. Magnes


President of Hebrew University
in Jerusalem Since 1935 ---
Once at Temple Emanu-El

Dr. Judah L. Magnes, president of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, who was one of the modern builders of the liberal tradition in America and for forty years an outstanding cultural leader in American and world Jewry, died yesterday at the age of 71 of a heart condition in his suite at the Hotel Mayflower, Central park West and Sixty-first Street. With him when he died was his wife, the former Beatrice Loewenstein, and the hotel physician.

Dr. and Mrs. Magnes returned to the United States late in April, their first return since 1946. He came in behalf of the Ihud (Union) Association of Palestine to present to the United Nations Special Assembly his views on a binational Jewish and Arab state for Palestine, of which he had been an advocate for twenty-five years, and to support the American proposal of that time for a trusteeship in Palestine.

He and his wife were to have returned to Palestine in June. He had been suffering from a heart condition for the last two years, and just before his return he was taken ill. For a time his condition improved, but he knew that his career was at an end.

Two sons were with him during his last days. They are Benedict and Dr. Jonathan Magnes. A third son, David, is in Palestine. He is also survived by two sisters, Mrs. Chester J. Teller of Newtown, Pa., and Mrs. Eugene Blumenthal of New Rochelle. A third sister, Mrs. Tess Magnes Popper, wife of Prof. William Popper of the University of California, who is now in New York, died several years ago.

Funeral Service Today

A funeral service will be held at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America at 2 p.m. today. Dr. David De Sola Pool, rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue, and Dr. Louis Finkelstein, president of the seminary, will officiate. Burial will be private.

Judah Leon Magnes was born in San Francisco on July 5, 1877, the son of David and Sophie Abrahmson Magnes. He received his B.A. degree from the University of Cincinnati in 1898 and his rabbinical degree from the Hebrew Union College two years later.

From 1900 to 1902 he studied in Europe, chiefly at the Universities of Berlin and Heidelberg, receiving a Ph.D. degree at Heidelberg in 1902. While abroad he toured the Jewish towns of Galician and Russian Poland and his experiences made him a confirmed Zionist. It was then that he affiliated himself with the Zionist movement.

Upon returning to the United States in 1903, he served as librarian and instructor at the Hebrew Union College for a year and then entered the active rabbinate. He was called to Brooklyn to occupy the pulpit of Temple Israel in 1904.

As a member of this city's clergy, he took an active role in the liberal causes of his time, one which was to claim an important part of his time until his removal to Jerusalem for the founding of the Hebrew University in 1922. Always a champion of the underprivileged and an advocate of peace through understanding and brotherhood, he associated himself with the leading liberals of the city and the country in what were, at the time, unpopular causes.

Stressed Cultual Revival

While his forthrightness and oratorical abilities quickly brought him moral leadership among American liberals, he became increasingly active also as a leader in the Jewish community. He was one of the first to take part in the revival of Jewish cultural life among American Jews. He was one of the founders of the American Jewish Committee in 1906 and he served as secretary from 1905 to 1908 of the Federatin of American Zionists, now the Zionist Organization of America.

In the Zionist movement he helped to bridge the chasm between the Americans of the Jewish faith of whom he was spokesman and symbol, and fellow-Zionists in or recently from Eastern Europe, separated from them in language and ideology. He was among the first to insist that in America Zionism must be interpreted in the light of the tradition of American democracy rather than according to theories sprung from the Eastern European environments.

Indentifying himself with the needs and aspirations of the Jewish masses abroad, as he had done with the masses, regarless of faith, at home, he organized the protest meetings over the Kishineff pogroms in Russia between 1905 and 1907. He led a parade up Broadway and Fifth Avenue as a demonstration of sorrow and indignation, and addressed many mass meetings. He made relief appeals for the victims and raised funds to provide the Russian-Jewish self-defense organization with arms and ammunition.

The late Louis Marshall, an officer of Temple Emanue-El, heard Dr. Magnes speak at a mass meeting. Negotiations followed which resulted in Dr. Magnes' engagement as associate rabbi of Temple Emau-El in 1906.

During his incumbency he laid the groundwork for the organization of the Jewish Community of New York, and served as its chairman during the organization's existence from 1907 to 1922. While the organization was short-lived, its Bureau of Jewish Education, which he established in 1910, functioned until 1941 and influenced organizations for Jewish education throughout the country.

His advocasy of more traditional aspects of worship and custom than the reform Jewish congregation could accept led to his resignation in 1910. He served for two years as rabbi of Congregation B'nai Jeshurun, but there also he was unable to persuade the congregation to accept his own preference for more orthodox Judaism.

In 1912 he left the rabbinate and became leader of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, which he served until 1920. The post enabled him to devote himself more fully to the social, philanthropic and cultural activities in which he was interested. He associated with labor and socialist leaders in seeking to improve conditions in New York's East Side, aided the garment unions in seeking to stabilize conditions in their industry and served as impartial chairman of the Fur Workers Reviewing Board in the turbulent fur industry.

A Stanch Pacifist

Pacifism was one of his strongest convictions thoughout his lifetime, one on which he relented only in 1939 to advocate war against Hitler. When the United States declared war in April, 1917, Dr. Magnes joined other American pacifists in vigorous expressions of pacifism in public. Unlike the situation in the second World War, when the position of religious pacifists was respected, pacifists were reviled then. He refused to compromise, however.

At the time the Jewish Community of New York had become the largest Jewish organization in the world and promised to be a constructive force in American Judaism. As a consequence of Dr. Magnes' pacifism and the public feeling about it, the organization began to decline. The intercollegiate Menorah Society which he sponsored, and many other Jewish cultural organizations that he founded survived, however.

In the first World War England made Palestine available for Jews as a restored homeland. This afforded Dr. Magnes an opportunity to pioneer in the Holy Land. He settled in Palestine in 1922. A movement developed for the founding of the Hebrew Universty in Jerusalem, mostly among his friends here and abroad. Having confidence in his ability, the sponsors entrusted him with the task of organizing the universtiy.

He conceived of the Hebrew University not as a duplicate of western universtities but as a bridge upon which East and West might meet. The first university of the Jewish people, it was to be, in his vision, a permanent home for the tradition of science, learning and ethical dedication among the Jews, not to achieve nationalistic aims but to enable Judaism to carry on its historical role as an interpreter and mediator among nations. Hence he stressed the study of Moslem culture along with the cultivation of Hebrew knowledge.

When the university was dedicated in 1925, Dr. Magnes became chancellor. He had been president 1935. From the beginning of his residence in Palestine he was outspoken for cooperation with the Arab population rather than dependence on British protection. While the official Zionist leadership favored a Jewish commonwealth, he advocated that Palestine be organized as a binational state in agreement with the Arabs and that it take its place in an Arab Federation in the Middle East.

During his tenure the university made considerable progress. He was particularly interested in its Institute of Jewish Studies, and its School of Oriental Studies, in the Hebrew University Press Association, which he helped establish in 1926, and in the Medical School, the joint creation of the university and of Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America.