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Rabbi Dr. Sheldon [Shaya] Robert Isenberg left this world on a clap of thunder as his beloved Bahira accompanied his soul’s release with songs. All who knew Reb Shaya had watched as he transcended the pain in his body for 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 was 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 with his brother Gerald Isenberg z”l. He attended Fall River public schools and held many leadership roles at Temple Beth El. Even then there were expectations he would become a Rabbi. Shaya graduated Phi Beta Kappa, Magna Cum Laude from Columbia University and earned his Ph. D. with Honors in Religious Studies at Harvard University, in 1968, where he was the first Jewish student enrolled in the Doctoral Program in New Testament and Christian Origins.
While holding academic positions at Duke University and Princeton University, Shaya and his wife Joan Packer Isenberg welcomed their two daughters Jennifer (b.1969) and Michelle (b.1972). He spent the remainder of his career at the University of Florida in Gainesville where he created and participated in interdisciplinary teaching as he pursued his true passion of seeking the “methodology of all methodologies.” That passion moved him to the study of mysticism and perennial philosophy. He co-created a series of programs for The American Academy of Religion, including courses in Religion and Sciences, which brought together faculty from physics, sociology, medicine, psychiatry, and religion. He helped launch a President’s Scholars program in which faculty became teachers to their colleagues, students, and community members. He was active in fundraising for many of the programs he helped develop at UF and was instrumental in bringing the Isser and Rae Price Library of Judaica to the University. During his tenure as chair, the Department of Religion at UF expanded and created an innovative doctoral program. Reb Shaya won recognition for his teaching, and many of his students over the years have remained an important part of his extended community of friends.
Ever the collaborator and one who encouraged others to shine, Reb Shaya enjoyed teaching with partners. During his long tenure at UF, he partnered with colleague Dr. Gene Thursby z”l teaching and coauthoring many papers during their years-long friendship. Later in his career, teaching in the Aleph Ordination Program, Reb Shaya cultivated another teaching partnership with Rabbi Dr. Victor Gross. This collaboration inspired their students 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 second wife, Bahira Betty Sugarman. Their marriage manifested the kind of love and life modeled by their parents' deep love for each other throughout their lives together. 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 workshops that helped people discover relationships as spiritual practice.
Inspired by the local P’nai Or congregation where he began to share in leading creative Jewish services, Shaya connected with national Jewish Renewal gatherings, and, under the influence of his spiritual teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l, finally began his studies for the Rabbinate. Following his ordination in 1995, he continued to officiate at lifecycle events, initiated study sessions, and together with Bahira, led Gainesville’s world-famous Yom Kippur retreats. Invited by Reb Zalman into his work of Spiritual Eldering, Shaya and Bahira began teaching that work in 1991 and continued teaching and training trainers until 2022. They also led workshops at Omega Institute and other venues. In teaching together they found a path to the shared spiritual practice for evolving in their relationship – with laughter a major tool for that process.
Reb Shaya and Bahira co-founded the ALEPH Sage-ing® Program in 1994 joining forces with Lynne Iser, co-founder and first Executive Director of the Spiritual Eldering Institute and later with Rabbis Nadya and Victor Gross. They all left ALEPH in 2017 and co-founded Yerusha to continue teaching the holy work of The Sage-ing® Legacy Mentorship Program 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 another award for Outstanding Volunteerism in Bahira’s name.
Reb Shaya also shared his love of knowledge by donating his immense library of books to the local Bhaktivedanta Academic Library run by the Hare Krishna Society, The collection focuses on the intersection of science and spirituality and includes volumes from all faiths and philosophies.
Reb 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 found joy in his wonderful grandchildren (Jacob, Sara, Samantha and Alexa), nieces, nephews, and their children, as well as his many G-d-children, Bahira’s family- Sugarman/Wolk/Caneva/Larcenaire/Bechta/Bellville/Isenberg, and, their family of choice. Reb Shaya will be missed by myriads of students, colleagues, friends, and relatives who carry his legacy for future generations. In the end, it was people that mattered most.
On June 18, 2023 Reb Shaya was interred in a beautiful Green Burial at Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery conducted by Rabbi David Kaiman under the most extraordinary auspices of Rev. Jane Weed Roy and Will from the D. Williams Mortuary. Donations in his honor may be made to Yerusha.org; Congregation B’nai Israel (https://www.bnaigainesville.com/payment.php); Aleph.org; and Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery (https://www.prairiecreekconservationcemetery.org/).