Rabbi Dr. Sheldon [Shaya] Robert Isenberg left this world on a clap of thunder as his beloved, Bahira, accompanied his soul’s release with the songs he loved to hear her sing. All who knew ‘Reb Shaya’ had watched as he transcended the pain in his body for many many years, choosing his love of life and his deep love for Bahira every day. His death, on the night of June 14, 2023 [27 Sivan, 5783] with 81 years and 8 months of life experience, left a great hole in the physical realm, and is a welcomed relief for his amazing spirit.
Born on October 21, 1941 to Solomon and Mary Shapiro Isenberg, Shaya grew up in Fall River, MA. He spent much of his childhood at Temple Beth El engaging in many leadership activities and – every once in a while – in prayer. Even then there were expectations he would become a Rabbi.
In High School he was part of the drama club and played leading roles in the musicals produced at the Temple. He was most proud of his leading role as “Mr. Popper” in “Mister Popper’s Penguins.” In the academic sphere, he studied German and Latin, while continuing his Hebrew studies. And, as a foreshadowing of all the good he would do in the world, he was a founding member of an organization that raised funds for college scholarships.
Shaya attended Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, next door. His plan to become a Rabbi was temporarily interrupted when he realized that he was an atheist. While many Rabbis told him, over the years, that should not have stopped him, he was not inspired by the coursework at JTS. He chose instead to pursue a degree in Religious Studies at Harvard University (PhD. 1968), where he became the first Jew enrolled in the PhD Program in New Testament and Christian Origins. His dissertation received Honors and was read eagerly by the dozen or so people in the world who cared.
His first academic position was at Duke University where he taught required bible classes in Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament. By the end of that first year he accepted a position at Princeton University. During that time, he and his wife Joan Packer Isenberg, welcomed their two daughters, Jennifer and Michelle. At Princeton, Shaya served as faculty advisor for students who were draft resistors and joined them in burning his draft card. Since he was classified as draft exempt, the gesture cost him nothing. Nevertheless, his subversive activities at one of the most conservative universities in the country did not earn widespread approval, and he left, much to the administration’s delight, to move to the University of Florida in Gainesville where he spent the rest of his University career.
Shaya found his place at UF, creating and participating in interdisciplinary teaching, as he pursued what became his real passion of seeking the “methodology of all methodologies.” That passion moved him to the study of mysticism and perennial philosophy. And he became co-creator of a series of programs that were new to his professional organization The American Academy of Religion. At UF he created and co-taught courses in Religion and Sciences, bringing together faculty from physics, sociology, medicine, including psychiatry as well as religion. He helped launch a President’s Scholars program in which faculty became teachers to their colleagues, students and community members. Following his High School experience, Shaya was active in fundraising for many of the programs he helped develop at UF, making road trips to visit donors and to bring a major Judaica Library to the University. During Shaya’s tenure as its chair, the Department of Religion grew and created its innovative doctoral program. He won recognition for his teaching, and many of his students over the years remained an important part of his extended community of friends.
Shaya, ever the collaborator and one who encouraged others to shine, enjoyed teaching with partners. During his long tenure at UF, he partnered with his colleague, Dr. Gene Thursby, teaching and co-authoring many papers. Their lifelong friendship was a defining one for Shaya. Later in his career, teaching in the Jewish Renewal Seminary (AOP), he cultivated another teaching partnership with Rabbi Dr. Victor Gross that inspired their students to learn as much from their friendship as from the content of their courses.
The co-teaching that filled him with the most joy was with his 2nd wife, Bahira Sugarman. Their marriage manifested the kind of love and life that one could have when each of their parents deeply loved each other for all their lives together. And that became their model. Shaya and Bahira spent years in meditation and study with Oscar Ichazo in his mystical school for clarifying consciousness, The Arica Institute. Out of that holy work together they created relationship workshops that helped people discover relationships can be a spiritual practice.
In time, under the influence of his spiritual teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z’l, Shaya became part of a highly spiritual movement called Jewish Renewal, and finally began his studies for the Rabbinate in earnest. Reb Zalman invited Shaya and Bahira into his work of Spiritual Eldering. Even in their 40’s they began teaching that work and continued teaching it and training teachers for almost 4 decades. They taught at Omega Institute for 10 years and other cutting-edge venues. In teaching together they found a path to the shared spiritual practice for evolving in their relationship. For both of them laughter was a major tool for that process.
After the demise of the Spiritual Eldering Institute, having made solemn promises to never work with a board of directors again, they co-founded what became the ALEPH Sage-ing® Program and joined forces with Rabbis Nadya and Victor Gross and Lynne Iser, the former Director of the Spiritual Eldering Institute. They all later left ALEPH and co-founded Yerusha to continue teaching the holy work of Sage-ing® and further the development of Deep Ecumenism, Ruach Ha’Aretz and the Wisdom School. In 2022, Yerusha created an annual award for excellence in teaching in Reb Shaya’s name, and one for outstanding volunteer in Bahira’s name.
In recent years, with the indispensable assistance of his Beloved Bahira, and friend, Bob Cohen, he gifted the Hari Krishna Center in Gainesville with his significant book collection. In the end, it was people that mattered most.
Shaya delighted in the growth and determination of his children, Jennifer (Scott Blacker) and Michelle (Dave Pearlstein) who continue to lead good lives, overcoming many obstacles. He also delighted in his wonderful grandchildren, Jacob, Sara, Samantha and Alexa; his nieces, nephews, their children, many G-d-children, Bahira’s family and their family of choice.
Reb Shaya will be missed by myriads of students, colleagues, friends and relatives who carry his inspiration into their lives.