On December 29, 1993, Marshall Meyer — the American rabbi who almost single-handedly established the Conservative movement in Argentina, who used his position to work on behalf of “disappeared” citizens during the dark years of the Argentine Dirty War, and then returned to the United States to resurrect a nearly defunct Manhattan synagogue — died, at the age of 62.
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Marshall Theodore Meyer was born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 25, 1930. When he was a child, his parents, Isaac and Anita Meyer, moved with Marshall and his two older siblings to Norwich, Connecticut. Isaac was a clothing manufacturer.
After graduation from Norwich Free Academy, Marshall attended Dartmouth University, in New Hampshire. There he came under the influence of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, a German-born philosopher and historian, and Jewish convert to Christianity, who challenged his student to explore his own connection to Judaism.
Desiring to write a senior thesis on a Jewish theme but lacking a firm academic background, Meyer went to New York to seek out philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel at the Jewish Theological Seminary. There, over a long afternoon’s conversation, he persuaded Heschel to serve as advisor on his senior project, which he ended up writing on the doctrine of love in Genesis Rabbah, a classical Torah commentary.
Following graduation from Dartmouth, in 1952, Meyer attended rabbinical school at JTS. During those same years, he served as secretary to Rabbi Heschel, who was well-known for his outspokenness on human rights.
Meyer received ordination as a Conservative rabbi in 1958. By then, he had been married for three years to the former Naomi Friedman, whom he had met in 1951, when she was just 14, on the bus to Camp Ramah, where Heschel had sent him to learn Hebrew.
Not much sense of community
For Meyer’s first job out of seminary, in 1959, he accepted the position of assistant to the rabbi of Buenos Aires’ historic Congregacion Israelita. Argentina then had a Jewish population of 400,000, but it was short on institutions or much sense of community. Marshall Meyer was determined to change that. He soon founded a new synagogue, Comunidad Bet El, which grew quickly to have 1,000 members and a Hebrew day school. He also helped found Latin America’s first rabbinical seminary; a Jewish publisher, which began translating essential texts into Spanish; a scholarly journal; and local branches of Camp Ramah.
The Meyers had intended to stay for a few years, but wound up staying in Argentina for more than 25. The period included the military rule of 1976-1983, when an authoritarian, anti-Semitic junta oversaw the abduction and presumed murder of some 11,000 citizens, a disproportionate number of them Jews.
Rabbi Meyer used the relative immunity provided him by his American passport to barge into military prisons to visit abductees of all backgrounds. Sometimes, he succeeded in getting them released (he worked with Israel to get gadfly journalist Jacobo Timerman out of prison), and he helped hundreds escape the country. At the time, many of his fellow Jews were critical of his “troublemaking.”
After democracy was restored in Argentina, in 1983, Meyer was the only non-citizen appointed by President Raul Alfonsin to the national commission that investigated the abuses of the military government. And when that finished its work, he and his family returned to the United States.
After a brief stint at the University of Judaism, in Los Angeles, he accepted the job of rabbi at B’nai Jeshurun, in New York. Founded in 1825, BJ’s membership had dwindled to some 90 families by 1985, and its historic home on West 88th St. was in a state of advanced decay.
Again, Meyer’s leadership helped turn the shul around, attracting more than 1,000 member families, and involving it in a wide range of community activities. As Meyer told an interviewer in 1987, he believed that “Judaism that’s not involved in social action is a contradiction in terms.”
At the beginning of December, 1993, Rabbi Meyer revealed that he was suffering from pancreatic cancer. He died a few weeks later, on December 30. By all accounts, he faced his illness with the same positive attitude and courage with which he contended with earlier challenges in his life.