Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield, the founder in 1985 of Ashland's Havurah Shir Hadash — and its rabbi for the first 10 years — drowned Tuesday while snorkeling in Mexico, where he and his wife, Beth, were attending the wedding of a son.
Hirschfield ordained the present rabbi of Havurah, David Zaslow, in 1995, and moved to Portland in 1996 to help found P'nai Or, which he served until his death. He was 65.
The Jewish community gathered Wednesday evening at Havurah "to weep and be together," said Zaslow, with a formal memorial planned for next week, at a time to be announced.
In addition to his wife, Hirschfield is survived by twin sons, Dov and Elisha, 7, and a teenage son Aviel. He has sons in their late 20s, Jonathan and Isaiah, the latter married last week to a Mexican woman, said Zaslow.
The accident happened in the ocean off a remote village where the Hirschfield family had gone after the wedding, Zaslow said. The couple and their twins were snorkeling less than 100 yards offshore, then his wife and the children went ashore in a dinghy. A short time later, Hirschfield's body was found floating offshore, Zaslow said.
"Aryeh was my teacher, my friend and my colleague and I cannot overstate the tragedy of this loss, personally and to the Jewish people," Zaslow said. "He was always searching for the humor and joy in life."
Hirschfield was a noted musician, performing and recording original and traditional Jewish music since 1973, much of it based on Psalms, Prophets, the Song of Songs and the Jewish mystical tradition, according to his Web site, www.rebaryeh.com.
"My performances are usually a blend of songs and Hassidic tales, as well as stories which arise out of my own personal life experiences," Hirschfield wrote on his Web site. "Many of these songs are a weave of sacred Hebrew texts and my own poetry and poetic translations. "¦ I seek to create an experience of joy, aliveness and connectedness to Judaism and ultimately, God willing, to the Sacred beyond any label or description."
Said Zaslow: "His music was foundational in the Jewish Renewal tradition and his songs are played by communities and synagogues throughout the world."
Rabbi Marc Sirinsky of Temple Emek Shalom, a friend of Hirschfield's, said, "He was a person who lived life to the fullest with his entire soul and body. He made Judaism accessible to people who wouldn't have gotten it any other way. He was a Baal Shem Tov, meaning the owner of a good name."
Sue Morningstar of Ashland, who will be ordained a rabbi this Sunday by Zaslow, said, "He opened up the beauty and depth of the ancient Hebrew tradition to hundreds of people. He was a bright light that went out way too early."
Hirschfield, she said, was the one who "cracked open my spirit and heart."
Allan Weisbard, a friend and member of the Ashland congregation, said, "He lived a big life and influenced many people and his death leaves a big emptiness. He brought Jewish renewal to this area with his own special soul and spirit, including his music."
Another friend, Richard Seidman of Ashland, said, "He was like one of those towering figures that come along very rarely, an amazing figure that you had the honor to be contemporaries with. He brought depth to everything, along with his amazing humor and great openness to all paths and people. He was such an inspired connection to the essential Judaism and a great and powerful teacher and friend."
Raised in the Orthodox tradition in the Bronx, N.Y., Hirshfield was ordained by Rabbi Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi, a main founder of Jewish Renewal, and came to Ashland in 1985.
Schachter-Shalomi, who spoke in Ashland a few years ago, said of Hirschfield at the time, "He makes the kind of music that lifts the soul in prayer and turns the spirit to prophecy. In the tradition of cantor and visionary musician, he entertains the spirit as well as the mind."
Hirschfield in December 2005 celebrated Havurah's 20th anniversary with a concert here and, at that time, said in an Ashland Daily Tidings story, "I'm very much looking forward to performing in Ashland and to having the opportunity to express the joy and love I feel for the people and the place. My intention is, basically, to raise the roof and get us all singing and even dancing. Into the mix I will weave stories and Jewish and universal spiritual teachings."
For the past 31 years, Hirschfield gave concerts and workshops on Jewish spirituality throughout North America and Europe and produced the music albums "Let the Healing Begin," "As the Deer Yearns" and "Wings of Peace," according to his Web site.
The Web site of P'nai Or, www.pnaiorpdx.org, states Hirschfeld's Portland work began with a workshop there in 1991, developing soon into services held in private homes, followed by founding of the synagogue in 1996. It states, "Our intent is to make Jewish spirituality accessible. Our guide, teacher, and friend in this unfolding process is Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield, whose insights, knowledge and humor guide us on our path."