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In Memory of . . . Jack Mendelsohn (1918-2012)

Posted By Administration, Friday, November 9, 2012

The Ministries and Faith Development staff offers our condolences to the family and colleagues of the Rev. Dr. Jack Mendelsohn who died on October 11, 2012 at the age of 94.

Rev. Mendelsohn was born in Cambridge, MA on July 22, 1918 to Jack and Anna (Torrey) Mendelsohn. Rev. Mendelsohn attained his Bachelor of Arts degree from Boston University in 1939. He then went on to earn a Bachelor of Sacred Theology from Harvard Divinity School in 1945. He received an honorary Doctor of Divinity from Meadville Lombard Theological School in 1962.

Rev. Mendelsohn was ordained by the Beverly Unitarian Church in Chicago, IL on October 28, 1945. He was called to the Unitarian Church in Rockford IL and served there from 1946-1954. He then went on to serve the All Souls Unitarian Church in Indianapolis, IN from 1954-1959. Rev. Mendelsohn was called to the Arlington Street Church in Boston, MA and served there from 1959-1969. The years 1969-1978 found him working at the First Unitarian Society of Chicago until he moved his ministry to the First Parish in Bedford, MA where he served from 1979-1988. Rev. Mendelsohn retired and began his next career as an interim minister at the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara. He served there from 1990-1991, and then found himself back in the northeastern United States at the Community Church of Boston, where he served from 1991-1993. He served as an interim minister from 1993-1994, and for the last time, at the First Parish Church in Beverly, MA. In 1988, he was named Minister Emeritus of the First Parish in Bedford.

Rev. Mendelsohn’s lifetime of community activities and accomplishments were vast and impressive. He served as president of the following: the Urban League of Greater Boston, Boston’s Foundation for Housing Innovations, the Binder Schweitzer Foundation, Hyde Park and Kenwood Council of Churches and Synagogues, Chicago’s Alliance to End Repression, and the Abraham Lincoln Centre. He was the president and CEO of the Civil Rights Project, Inc.; and the grant administrator of Eyes On The Prize, an award-winning public television series on the civil rights movement. He served as director of the following: the Housing and Planning Association of Metropolitan Boston, the International Institute of Boston, and Chicago’s Center for Psychotherapy and Religion.

Heavily invested in and committed to the denomination, Rev. Mendelsohn served as: a member and an officer of the Board of Directors for the Western Unitarian Conference; vice-president of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee; chairman of the board of Beacon Press; vice-chairman of the Unitarian Universalist Black Affairs Council; chairman of the UUA’s Program Committee; chair of the UUA’s Channing Bicentennial Celebration Committee; chair of the UUA Committee on Urban Concerns and Ministry; and president of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA). He was also once a candidate for the presidency of the UUA; a founding member of the Association for Liberal Religious Studies (Collegium); a consultant for the Cambridge Forum; the only male member of the UUA Committee on Women and Religioun; and an adjunct faculty member at Meadville Lombard Theological School. In 1997, he received the UUA Distinguished Service Award.

Long active in civil rights and political matters, Rev. Mendelsohn made headlines when he conducted the Vietnam War Resistance service at Arlington Street Church in Boston in 1967. He also served as an advisor on religious questions to his friend and fellow UU, Adlai Stevenson; and, in 1968, he served on the campaign staff of Robert F. Kennedy. In 1979, an old friend and colleague, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, asked Rev. Mendelsohn to accompany him on his trip to the Middle East to meet with Yasser Arafat. 15 years later in 1984, he once again travelled with Rev. Jackson to Syria to attend negotiation talks with Syrian President Hafez Assad.

At the 1969 UUA General Assembly, Rev. Mendelsohn came to the microphone on a point of personal privilege following a critical close vote on agenda priority for funding of the Black Affairs Council. He stated that he was leaving the floor of the Assembly and going across the street to Arlington Street Church to contemplate what had happened. This gesture triggered a mass walkout of many Assembly delegates and the ensuing negotiations that resulted in re-consideration of the black empowerment agenda.

A prolific and engaging writer on the subject of liberal religion, Rev. Mendelsohn was the writer of many denominational pamphlets and magazine articles. He also published seven books: Why I Am A Unitarian (Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1960); God, Allah and Juju (Beacon Press, 1965); The Forest Calls Back (Little Brown and Co., 1965); The Martyrs: Sixteen Who Gave Their Lives for Racial Justice (Harper and Row, 1966); Channing: The Reluctant Radical (Little Brown and Co., 1971) and Being Liberal in an Illiberal Age: Why I Am a Unitarian Universalist (Beacon Press, 1964/Skinner House, 1995). Rev. Mendelsohn’s Why I Am books have provided thousands of people with their first in-depth introduction to Unitarian Universalism.

On the subject of "Immortality for Skeptics” in his seminal work, Being Liberal in an Illiberal Age: Why I Am a Unitarian Universalist, Rev. Mendelsohn wrote,

When we reason together about the truths and mysteries of life, there is one all-powerful reality: The humanity of which we are individual expressions is a product of the sense and nonsense of our forebears. We are the living immortality of those who came before us. In like manner, those who come after us will be the harvest of the wisdom and folly we ourselves are sowing. To let this reality permeate and drench our consciousness is to introduce ourselves to the grand conception of immortality which makes yearnings for some form of personal afterlife seem less consequential. So long as there is an ongoing stream of humanity I have life. This is my certain immortality. I am a renewed and renewing link in the chain of humanity. My memory and particularity are personal, transitory, finite; my substance is boundless and infinite. The immortality in which I believe affirms first and foremost my unity with humankind. My unity with humankind gives meaning to my desire to practice reverence for life. It is pride in being and pride in belonging to all being.

Rev. Mendelsohn is survived by his loving wife, Judith Frediani; son, Channing Mendelsohn; daughter, Deborah Mendelsohn; son, Kurt Mendelsohn; granddaughters, Olivia Jenkins and Hannah Kossow; step-son, Aaron Worth; step-daughter, Keilah Worth; and step-grandson, Luca Domingos-Worth.

A memorial service will be held on Monday, November 12, 2012 at 1 p.m. at The First Parish in Bedford, 75 Great Rd., Bedford, MA 01730.

Notes of condolence may be sent to Judith Frediani at 51 Butler Ave., Maynard, MA 01754.

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