Rabbi Morton M. Leifman, who served as vice president of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and dean of its cantor’s institute, now the H.L. Miller Cantorial School, died on May 5 in Rockville.
Leifman, born in Minneapolis, began studying at New York University and JTS in 1944. He graduated from New York University in 1950 and was ordained at JTS in 1951. As a student, he worked with Rabbis Abraham Joshua Heschel and Mordecai Kaplan while serving a student congregation in Brooklyn.
In 1959, he joined the administration at JTS as dean of students of the teachers institute and director of the Joint Bet Din.
“Rabbi Leifman was ‘the rabbi’ for students and staff at JTS,” said Rabbi Charles Feinberg, executive director at the Interfaith Action for Human Rights, who has known Leifman’s family for more than 50 years. “[He] was a trusting and trustworthy counselor to students [and] an outstanding Yiddishist and had a profound knowledge of Jewish music.”
Shaul Magid wrote in Tikkun magazine that Leifman “was the kind of teacher who exuded a love for his subject. The classroom was a theater, and he played most of the parts.”
In 1962, he married Vera Halleman, a Barnard College graduate, who became an attorney.
“Morty was a sweetheart,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Wohlberg, rabbi emeritus at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, whose family met Leifman when he was a teenager in Minneapolis and has remained in contact since. “[He was] a very embracing and loving kind of person. Everyone who met him felt drawn to him. And he was available to everyone for help, advice and a good story.”
Leifman is remembered by friends and colleagues as a “master raconteur.”
“His stories were legendary, and he would regale everyone for hours. Over his career he visited hundreds of congregations [as a] scholar in residence and enraptured everyone with his stories,” Rabbi Jan Caryl Kaufman, who served in several positions at the Rabbinic Assembly, said in a written eulogy,
For the past two years, Leifman and his wife lived at the Landow House of the Charles E Smith Life Communities.
He is survived by his wife, Vera Leifman; four children, Judy Mutzari, Dr. Jon Arbelle (Dr. Shosh Arbelle), Ari Leifman (Laura Leifman) and Michael Leifman (Sharon Samber); eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.