Rabbi Jason Z. Edelstein, a humble intellectual and respected spiritual leader who led his Monroeville congregation for 35 years, died Sept. 4. He was 91.
Edelstein became Temple David’s first full-time rabbi 60 years ago and served on the bima for four decades. He also taught religious courses for many years — and spearheaded a course on Catholic-Jewish dialogue — at the Benedictine Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, which named a chair in his honor in 2015.
“He was a very erudite man who was deeply religious,” said Rabbi Barbara Symons, who today leads Temple David in Monroeville, its third full-time rabbi. “He believed Reform Judaism should have standards and he wanted a synagogue … that supported having those standards.”
“He certainly served the congregation beautifully for many years and was always available and helpful to people who needed him,” said Rabbi Walter Jacob, a peer who led the Reform congregation Rodef Shalom during Edelstein’s time at Temple David. “He dealt with people openly and frankly — which isn’t always easy for a rabbi.”
Edelstein was born Jan. 31, 1930, in Massachusetts, worked briefly as a psychologist and lived with his wife, Eva, in Williamsburg, Virginia and Cincinnati, Ohio, before attending Hebrew Union College. He was ordained as a rabbi in June 1958, and came to the Pittsburgh suburbs in 1960 after working as a lieutenant and chaplain in the U.S. Naval Reserve in Honolulu, Hawaii.
On Dec. 7, 1959, Edelstein officiated the dedication of the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor, and later hosted a luncheon in Pearl Harbor with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Interfaith dialogue was important to Edelstein. He was invited to teach at Saint Vincent in 1968 by his friend, Father Campion Gavaler, then the chair of the college’s theology department, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council and its emphasis on healing relationships between Catholics and Jews, school officials there said. He went on to become a respected instructor and pastoral leader, teaching Jewish theology and history, the Holocaust, and Catholic-Jewish dialogue. He taught at the school for more than 50 years, through 2020.
“Teaching well into his ninth decade, Rabbi Edelstein was a joyful, tireless and engaging teacher, who brought his tremendous intellectual acumen, his pastoral training and his good sense to the classroom every day, and generations of Saint Vincent students and seminarians have been blessed because of him,” said Christopher McMahon, the current chairman of the theology department.
The result of inviting the rabbi to teach at Saint Vincent’s “was a commitment to mutual enrichment between Rabbi Edelstein and the students of Saint Vincent, where both came to know their respective faiths in a different and brighter light,” McMahon added.
Edelstein — a father of three who had several grandchildren and was predeceased by his wife, Eva, in 2019 — was a dedicated leader to his congregation in Monroeville. Many who prayed alongside him in his early years pored over reminiscences of the rabbi last week.
“I am a charter member of Temple David with tremendous respect for Rabbi Edelstein — he was a decent and moral man,” Beverly Pollock wrote to the Chronicle. “Even though I moved away, he called every year at Rosh Hashanah. He inspired our children to learn and to question. When my daughter told him that she thought the Bible was just a book of fairy tales, he told her something she never forgot: that we need to look to the Bible for truths, not just facts.”
“Rabbi Edelstein confronted the real and difficult questions that face Jews in the modern world,” said Mindy Norman, who joined Temple David in 1985, 10 years before Edelstein transitioned to rabbi emeritus. “He helped us to unfold the meaning of Torah. Rabbi Edelstein embraced modernity and yet kept many traditions. His sermons were so powerful that I still remember them.”
“As a superb teacher, role model, and man with a very warm heart, I’ll miss him more than I can say — Baruch Dayan HaEmet,” wrote Susan Grossberger Bortz.
JoAnn White met Edelstein in 1961. He left quite an impression.
“He was always a very formidable person,” White told the Chronicle. “He was always somebody who was very kind and soft-spoken. But he commanded respect.”
When White’s fiancé was converting to Judaism, the couple took part in a civil wedding ceremony and moved together to North Carolina, where Edelstein had introduced them — in the days before the internet, mind you — to a local rabbi. About five months later, after the conversion process was complete, White and her husband, Mark, came back to Temple David for a proper wedding ceremony.
“Even when he retired and became rabbi emeritus, I’d still get a call, ‘JoAnn, how are you doing?’” White recalled. “It was that kind of relationship. We thought he’d always be there.”
Rabbi Symons said Edelstein was an extraordinary rabbi emeritus, in part because he cared for the congregation, but also because he allowed her space to lead.
“He was very clear he’d never interfere and he’d assist me in any way he could,” Symons told the Chronicle. “When I had a challenge about how to approach an issue, though, he’d make time instantly, always focusing on my perspective of it, even if it was a rule, a bylaw, that was created when he was the rabbi.
“It really was a gift through the years,” she added.
Rabbi Jacob, who is Edelstein’s age, was saddened last week by the news of his peer’s passing.
“We were good friends,” he told the Chronicle, “and we talked quite often.”
But “At 91,” he said, “one cannot complain.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.