Rabbi Max Ticktin, formerly of Madison Hillel, dies at 94

“He was a very special person.”

So said Patty Eisberg Kaplan, University of Wisconsin-Madison Class of 1965, referring to Rabbi Max Ticktin. Many people around the country expressed similar feelings upon learning of Ticktin’s death on July 3. He was 94.

Kaplan, now living in Beachwood, Ohio, was introduced to Ticktin during his final years as Hillel director in Madison, where he served from 1948 to 1964.

Kaplan recalled Ticktin helping her deal with an aunt’s serious illness and an uncle’s death. “He talked to me about my relatives, asked questions and explained what I could do, taking a very individualized interest in me and my family,” she said.

Ticktin left Madison to become Hillel director at the University of Chicago. He moved to Washington, D.C., in 1970 as assistant director of the national Hillel movement. He left Hillel in 1980 to begin a 30-year stint on the faculty of George Washington University’s Program of Jewish Studies.

“I have met scores of alumni and community members from all over the world who knew Max and whose life was deeply touched by his leadership,” Madison Hillel Executive Director Greg Steinberger said. ”From the student whose father died an untimely death and Max was there to help (the student) grieve, to there was the student whose family had financial devastation and lost everything; Max made sure that the student had a job and dignity. Or for the hundreds of students who came to college seeking to meet other Jewish students, or study Torah and Talmud or fight the important fights for a better and just society. Max provided leadership and comfort to so many.”

Steve Morrison of Madison was executive director/CEO of the Jewish Federation of Madison from 1984 to 2010. He was membership director of B’nai B’rith International before moving to Madison. He and Ticktin worked together in Washington.

“Max had a passion for doing what is right and just, he had a love for the Jewish people – especially the young – and he had faith that Israel can and needs to do better,” Morrison said.

Rabbi Alan Lettofsky of Cleveland met Ticktin in 1972 when he began working for Hillel.

“He showed me around Madison during my first year at Hillel, and described what the Jewish students of the 40s and 50s faced. He also took me on a tour of the Hillel building, which had been built during his tenure,” Lettofsky said.

Lettofsky said Ticktin’s “knowledge of Hebrew and Yiddish literature, all topics related to Judaism, social action and American and Israeli politics, and so much more, was encyclopedic. His especially warm and supportive relationships with hundreds of people of all ages and his curiosity about their lives and families was unparalleled.”

Steinberger said Ticktin’s work “helped frame our dialogue with Jewish students today on faith, community and Israel,” referring to Ticktin as a giant in the history of Jewish life at the University of Wisconsin and Hillel nationally.

“Without his leadership, our community would not be what it is today,” Steinberger said.

Rabbi Ticktin was a founder of Breira, a group that urged Israel to seek peace with the Palestine Liberation Organization two decades before the Oslo accords. He served on the faculty of the George Washington University’s program of Judaic studies for more than 30 years.

He died of a cerebral hemorrhage.