July 1, 2005

by Reb Yudel
Speaking of the Teaneck school system...

Louis J. Sigel, 81, a Rabbi and a Force for Integration, Is Dead

Louis J. Sigel, a Teaneck, N.J., rabbi who was a prominent voice for integration of the township's public schools in the early 1960's, died on Sunday at his home in Hackensack, N.J. He was 81.

His wife, Miriam, announced his death.

Teaneck became the first town in America to vote to integrate its schools voluntarily. Rabbi Sigel was the spiritual leader of Temple Emeth there from 1960 to 1992, and when he arrived, after nine years at Temple Tifereth Israel in Malden, Mass., Teaneck was embroiled in heated discussions over a growing racial imbalance in the schools.

In "Triumph in a White Suburb" (William Morrow & Company, 1968), about the integration of Teaneck, the author, Reginald G. Damerell, wrote that Rabbi Sigel - a Torah and Talmud scholar who primarily considered himself a teacher - calmed a fractious community meeting.

A law professor who was a member of Temple Emeth stood and asked why the whole community had to be "disturbed" by a problem that he said black residents had created themselves by moving into one end of town.

"The temple's rabbi, Louis J. Sigel, rose," Mr. Damerell wrote. "His rich voice carried throughout the auditorium" as he narrated a story from the Talmud about a man who sees a fire in another part of town and asks, "What have I to do with the needs of the community?"

"Sigel's voice rose in emphasis, 'Such a man destroys the world!' " Mr. Damerell wrote. "Applause exploded through the auditorium."

That set the stage for a resolution from the floor commending the Board of Education "for studying possible ways to prevent de-facto segregation," the author said. It passed, thus providing the integration side with a victory in its first skirmish.

Because of his pro-integration stand, some temple members wanted to oust him, his family later acknowledged, but a large majority supported him.

Born in Derby, Conn., the son of an Orthodox rabbi, he chose Reform Judaism instead and attended Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, where he was ordained in 1951. He also held bachelor's and master's degrees from Yale.

He and a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister founded the Teaneck Clergy Council in 1972. He served as its first president until 1974.

Besides his wife, Rabbi Sigel's survivors include two daughters, Judith Fox and Deborah Rutz, and four grandchildren.

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