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Obituary: Kitty Stein

For more than three quarters of the 20th century, at a time when women were expected to stay at home and raise families, Kitty Stein was one of the lay leaders of Jewish communal life.

In 1923, she was chosen by Henrietta Szold, the charismatic leader of Hadassah, the American women's organisation for the Zionist cause, to become involved in that work and in the building of a Jewish community in Palestine. Later, when she became a central figure for Youth Aliyah, concerned with bringing young children out of Hitler's Germany to Palestine and Great Britain, she met all the leaders of European Jewry involved in the dream for a Jewish homeland. By then, she had married Leonard Stein, the historian of the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and a close associate of Chaim Weizmann, later the first president of the State of Israel.

For her 90th birthday, her son Richard took her to Israel where she could see the fruits of her labours, particularly the youth villages and inspect places like the "Sarah K. Stein clubroom" in Aloney Yitzhak, and recall her meetings with the founders of Israel. When the curator of the Weizmann Museum explained that all the rooms were as they had been decades ago, Kitty Stein firmly disagreed and explained how the furniture should be re-arranged.

Recently, an interviewer asked Kitty Stein what she would expect at the end of her life. At once, she quoted Charles Kingsley's "A Farewell":

Be good, sweet maid, and let

who will be clever.

Do lovely things, not dream them

all day long,

And so make Life and Death and

that vast For Ever

One grand sweet song.

But she was clever. Her modesty concealed a formidable intellect and profound learning. She explained that Kingsley quotation by saying: "I believe in that vast forever and shall become part of it. As you cannot add to, or diminish from, the mass of the universe, I am part of that, too."

Her questing and questioning approach to faith reflected the thoughts of her favourite teacher, Alfred North Whitehead. After studying at Barnard/Columbia University in New York, she rejected a fellowship at Bryn Mawr so that she could study with Whitehead at Harvard. But she also worked with Harry Wolfson, professor of Hebrew literature and thought and the great expert on Philo and on Spinoza, who considered Kitty one of the best students he had ever encountered.

Kitty was rooted in Judaism (at the age of 16 she was tutored by the great Dayan Moses Hyamson, then a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York). Born Sarah Kitay, in 1899, she grew up among the grandees of American Jewish life. Her surname was the old Russian word for China (Cathay), and her father came from Lithuania.

He was a liberal traditionalist - the horses of the family carriage rested on the Sabbath - who felt the need to live outside New York, where the Orthodox community kept their shops open on the Sabbath. The Kitay furniture stores, early proponents of the hire-purchase plan, were closed on the Sabbath. In time, Kitty joined the Reform movement; but she always respected traditional Jewish life and thought. If not a feminist, Kitty was a fierce fighter for women's rights, and her own public life proved her leadership within Jewry.

Kitty met Leonard Stein at a Zionist Congress in Vienna in 1925. The family recalls that he asked her to dance; and he did not like her hair "piled up like that". He pulled out a vital hairpin, and it all tumbled down. She was furious, and fell in love with him on the spot. When they married three years later, she came back with him to England, despite her parents' objections.

Kitty Stein always searched for adventures and encounters. When she first visited Palestine in 1923, travelling from Alexandria to Jerusalem, she found her compartment invaded by Haile Selassie's entourage and enjoyed a long conversation in French with the ladies and then with the emperor. During the difficult 1930s, she worked with the Woman's Appeal Committee to bring refugee children out of Germany, and became part of the executive of the British Youth Aliyah Committee. Her close contacts with the Weizmanns, Rebecca Sieff, Lord Nathan and Leonard Montefiore kept her active in other areas of Jewish life and thought. During the Second World War, she lectured to troops around Britain on "Democracy" - and she also coached students in a convent school.

In an interview in the Jewish Chronicle she stated:

I do not believe in the existence of God as an external factor. Each culture establishes its own kind of religion. I'm biased, I suppose, having been brought up as a Jew, but I feel that our conception of God and our ethical concepts are far, far superior to anything that anyone else has created and that the Old Testament has contributed more to the establishment of law and culture in Western Europe than any other factor.

Her husband Leonard died in 1973, when he was 85. Kitty continued to live in the Temple, surrounded by judges and the law. Her visitors on her last birthday, two months before she died, were amazed at her clarity of thought and sharp decisive judgements. At the West London Synagogue and the Westminster Synagogue she was still involved in questions of music and of liturgy - and gave advice to the rabbis.

Sarah Kitay, community leader and educator: born Paterson, New Jersey 9 November 1899; married 1928 Leonard Stein (died 1973; one son, and one son deceased); died London 5 January 1997.