JOEL TIBOR KLEIN Rabbi Joel Tibor Klein was born on January 1, 1923 and died on his 100th birthday. He was predeceased by his wife, Anna (Berkovits) Klein; his brother, Sandor; and his parents, Jeno and Szerena (Reich) Klein. Tibor Klein grew up in Budapest, Hungary, facing rampant anti-Semitism in the 1920s and 1930s. During World War II, he was forced into the euphemistic Jewish Labour Brigades, slave labourers exploited to support the Nazi war effort. He miraculously escaped from a death march, and after the war, returned to Budapest with his father and brother. His mother was murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. He earned PhDs in Semitic Languages, Near Eastern Studies and Psychology. Ordained as a rabbi in 1949, he was posted to a small town in southern Hungary, where the cantor’s wife invited her cousin’s beautiful daughter to visit for Passover to meet the new rabbi. They fell in love and were married six weeks later. Within a year, son Laszlo (Les) was born. As Chief Rabbi of Northwestern Hungary, Tibor relocated to Gyor, where daughter Judy was born. Under Communism, his sermons were censored and he used guile to get his messages across. During the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, Anna and the children fled to Austria. Tibor was in Budapest helping people leave when the Russians invaded and he was sentenced to death. Miraculously, he escaped with help from a guard whom he had helped out of difficulties years earlier. The family immigrated to the US, arriving on Thanksgiving Day 1956; he arrived three months later on Valentine’s Day 1957. He attended night school to learn English and worked in a fur factory packing boxes during the day. Tibor anglicized his Hebrew name and became known as Joel. He joined the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly and served congregations in West Springfield, MA, Claremont, NH, and Waukegan, IL. In 1964, he became rabbi of Temple Israel in Manchester, NH, where he served for 13 years. After his retirement from the rabbinate, he became a pastoral and family counsellor and a founding member of the New Hampshire Pastoral Psychotherapist Association. In 1999, he received an honourary PhD from the Rabbinical Assembly for fifty years of service as a rabbi. In 2010, the Kleins moved to The Cedars in Portland, Maine, and joined Temple Beth El, where Joel attended services thanks to members who drove him each week. Joel and Anna were Holocaust survivors. Rather than rejecting his Jewish identity, Joel asked ‘Why was I kept alive?’ He saw his purpose in life as bringing light where there was darkness, and knowledge where there was none. Both lectured extensively about their experiences in the Holocaust and recorded testaments for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation. He spoke Hungarian, English and Hebrew, was conversant in German, Yiddish, Latin, Greek and ancient Babylonian, and could decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics. He spoke English with a Hungarian accent and he frequently mixed up pronouns, but he had an impressive vocabulary, which he used with great effect in sermons and public presentations. Joel wrote four books, all self-published, including ‘In the Name of God,’ his revolutionary theory of the origins of Judaism and Christianity based on the names used for the Jewish god Adonai, and a book co-authored with his wife, ‘In the Shadow of the Pulpit,’ a retrospective of their lives as a rabbi and rabbi’s wife in Hungary and the US. He was a man of great intellect and strong convictions. His life was a search for recognition and respect, in the face of tremendous odds and the most life-shattering waves of history. He relied on his faith in rational thought and on his lifelong observance of Jewish laws and traditions to carry him through the worst days, ones which we today cannot even imagine. Most of all, Joel loved his wife, Anna; we kids, Les and Judy; his son-in-law, Rich Golden and daughter-in-law, Toby Rose; his five grandchildren and their partners; and six great-grandchildren. He taught us to find our own ways to express our identities and our Judaism, and though our practices varied from his, he accepted our decisions with grace and abiding love. The Talmud says that those who die on their birthdays have perfectly completed their mission in this life. True to his Biblical namesake, the prophet Joel, Joel Klein spoke truth to everyone and inspired us all to reach for the best that we could be. He could leave us no greater gift than this. Funeral and interment took place on January 4, 2023, in Portland, Maine. A private shiva will be held in Toronto. Donations may be made in Joel’s name to Temple Beth El or to The Cedars in Portland, Maine, to Congregation Darchei Noam in Toronto, or to the Charity of Your Choice.
Published by The Globe and Mail from Jan. 7 to Jan. 11, 2023.