Communism and Holocaust failed to shatter new Beth El rabbis faith

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Of the many roles a rabbi plays, Rabbi Ferenc Raj is particularly adept at the role of teacher. He has, after all, taught under the most extraordinary of circumstances.

As a young man in Communist-ruled Hungary, frustrated by government restrictions on religious observance and study, Raj (pronounced "roy") delved underground into Hebrew and Jewish studies. By age 16, the new rabbi of Berkeley's Reform Congregation Beth El was teaching other young Jews what he had learned.

Studying Judaism remained so important to Raj that he later attended Budapest's Jewish Theological Seminary seminary — one of the few Jewish educational institutions kept open by the Communists — even though he knew the decision would mean increased government interference in his life.

"If you went to one of those institutions, you would always be under surveillance," Raj explained, adding that for that reason, few people entered the rabbinate. "Those who did chose a life of difficulties and hardship."

Hardship, however, was not new to Raj. Born in 1942 during World War II, he and his brother were among the children saved by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. Though Raj's parents survived the war, his uncle, a prominent Hungarian rabbi, committed suicide in Auschwitz after his son was shot to death before his eyes.

One might expect such a loss to shake Raj's religious faith. Instead, it helped lead him to the rabbinate. After receiving a rabbinical degree in 1967, in fact, Raj took over as spiritual leader of his uncle's former congregation.

"It was a very special feeling because I felt that I [was] able to fulfill some of his dreams," Raj said. "He was a young man, 40 or 41, when he was killed."

In post-Holocaust Eastern Europe, serving as a rabbi might seem an overwhelmingly somber mission. But Raj said there were moments of optimism.

"The 6 million don't want to live on in our tears, but in our joyful songs and celebration," he said. After the war, "there was so much sorrow. But also people remarried, they built new families."

Though helping to nurture that rebuilding meant a great deal to Raj, he found himself increasingly frustrated because he could not openly teach such subjects as modern Hebrew or Zionism but was restricted to ancient prayers and texts. Therefore, as in his teen years, he defied the law and taught forbidden aspects of Judaism underground.

By 1972, however, it became clear to him that "I had two choices — to go to jail, or leave the country." The 53-year-old rabbi chose the latter, originally planning to go to Israel but settling for America after being warned of limited opportunities for liberal rabbis in the Jewish state.

Raj escaped Hungary via an illegal underground smuggling ring he helped establish for Jews wanting to leave the country. "Like the good captain of a sinking ship, I was the last to leave," he said.

He headed to Brooklyn, where he led a Reform congregation, Progressive Shaari Zedek, and pursued graduate work in Iranian Jewish studies at Columbia University. He had studied Middle Eastern studies as an undergraduate.

Fifteen years later, Raj moved to the Boston area, where he led Beth El Temple Center in Belmont. He left the synagogue last year to pursue a doctorate in Eastern and Central European studies at Brandeis University.

A year into his studies, however, Berkeley's Beth El offered Raj a job he felt he couldn't refuse.

"Almost immediately, I felt that I am at home," said the rabbi, who was chosen from some 55 candidates. He was attracted by "the warmth of the community." Also, "they have a deep interest in learning. The value system is very similar to mine."

But the Bay Area holds another, very personal appeal for Raj. His son, Gabor, 25, lives in San Francisco and works for Teach for America, a nonprofit organization that sends young teachers into inner-city schools. The rabbi and his wife, Paula, have three additional children: Zimra, 27, an attorney living in Israel; Stacy, 24, who works for the National Institutes of Health outside Washington, D.C.; and Jonathan, a recent college graduate who lives in New York.

Here just six weeks, Raj replaces Rabbis Samuel Broude and Shelley Waldenberg, who led Beth El temporarily following the departure of Rabbi Avi Levine. Among other plans, Raj hopes to establish a relationship between Beth El's religious school and the school run by his brother Tamas, also a rabbi, who still lives in Hungary.

Mostly, though, he just wants to work with congregants to build the kind of community they want. "I believe the rabbi is not a dictator. The rabbi is a resource person, a teacher," he said. "We are all co-workers in the unfinished work of creation."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.