Rabbis flock coming home for 25-year celebration

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After more than 25 years as the spiritual leader of San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel, Rabbi Martin Weiner is letting someone else take the helm.

But he's not going anywhere.

A team of Weiner's colleagues — two former rabbinic assistants and a past president of the congregation — will lead Shabbat services honoring the senior rabbi. The tribute is part of a weekend full of activities to mark Weiner's quarter century at the Reform synagogue.

The celebration begins with services at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 13 and culminates with cocktails, dinner and dancing slated for 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14 at the Embarcadero Hyatt Hotel, 5 Embarcadero Center, S.F.

Weiner, a man of towering stature, has cast his influence throughout the city and beyond, attracting congregants from as far as Marin County, said Sheldon Wolfe, a past president of Sherith Israel.

"When Marty came, there were something like 620 families. Now, I believe there are maybe 1,200 or 1,300. He has had a major impact on the congregation," he said.

Wolfe, a San Francisco attorney, was raised and became a bar mitzvah at Sherith Israel, as did his children. Son Gregory Wolfe is one of four Weiner admirers who have gone on to become rabbis themselves (two others are currently in rabbinical school).

Wolfe of Bet Haverim in Davis will join the other three — Weiner's son, Rabbi Daniel Weiner of Ohav Shalom in Harrisburg, Pa.; Rabbi Stephen Kahn of Temple Sinai in Denver; and Rabbi Daniel Feeder of Oheb Shalom in Baltimore — to lead a havdallah service that weekend.

A San Francisco native, Martin Weiner began his own rabbinic career at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. His first post took him to Baltimore in 1964, where he was assistant, associate and then co-rabbi at Oheb Shalom.

He came to Sherith Israel four years later. In addition to leading the congregation spiritually, Weiner has spurred its social activism. Congregants regularly hold forums on issues of public concern, such as gun violence, domestic violence and political campaign reform. Several groups at the synagogue are devoted to feeding the needy and those suffering from AIDS.

Rabbi Stephen Pearce of the Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco called his colleague "a gem" and "the model of a pastor, counselor and advisor of people.

"He has a very hands-on rabbinate, and a lot of very personal connections to people. He would go anywhere for any member of the Jewish community."

Pearce noted that Weiner, who is a personal friend, has been active in just about every Jewish, human rights and interfaith organization in San Francisco — "He is the senior rabbi in this community."

Rabbi Stan Zamek, assistant rabbi at Sherith Israel, penned a tribute to Weiner in a recent congregation newsletter. Zamek described his associate as a "rabbi's rabbi," and a mentor to others in the field.

"…When I finally leave Sherith Israel, part of my Rabbinic repertoire will always be `Weineresque,'" Zamek wrote.

Such grace of leadership wasn't always easy for Weiner, who says he constantly struggles to balance his time spent with his congregation and family.

"I'm glad that my children, because of my [overtime] commitment, didn't turn off to Judaism," he said.

After years of working on weekends, a lunch date and movie with wife Karen is sometimes a necessary escape, he said.

Yet, he added, there have been few regrets.

"There has been wonderful satisfaction in building up the Sherith Israel community," he said.

"I became a rabbi because I wanted to help people."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.