Alvin Fine, former Emanu-El rabbi, backed civil liberties

Congregants used to refer to Rabbi Alvin Fine as "the voice."

"He had a very mellifluous, deep, resonant voice that people loved to listen to," said Rabbi Stephen Pearce of San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El, where Fine was senior rabbi for 16 years. "He was a brilliant preacher and had a tremendous following among people who loved the art of the sermon."

Fine, who led Emanu-El from 1948 to 1964, died Jan. 19 of congestive heart failure in Napa, where he resided. He was 82.

"He had the ability to inspire and even mesmerize by the use of his poetic words, the strength of his voice and the sincerity with which he prepared his work," said retired Cantor Joseph Portnoy, who worked alongside Fine for years.

In demand as a speaker throughout the country, Fine was asked to speak at Chief Justice Earl Warren's funeral. He delivered his eulogy in the National Cathedral in Washington, saying, "One of the giants of our generation has fallen and a part of every man has fallen with him."

Fine came to Emanu-El after earning a bronze star for his work as a chaplain for Jewish soldiers in China during World War II. An ardent Labor Zionist, he has been credited with bringing harmony to a congregation whose members were divided in their attitudes toward the new Jewish state.

An activist by nature, Fine spoke out against Sen. Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist witch hunts, urged passage of civil rights bills, vigorously opposed prayer in public schools and served as regional board chair for the American Civil Liberties Union.

"His general philosophy was that one's character should be judged by deeds rather than just words," said Louis Heilbron, a former synagogue president and close friend of Fine.

To honor the rabbi's activist history, Lehrhaus Judaica in 1993 named Fine a recipient of the Genesis Award. The prize is given to people who have contributed to growth and innovation in the local Jewish community.

"There was nothing wishy-washy about Alvin Fine," Portnoy said. "He had strong opinions. He would stand by what was just, honest and according to his way of thinking."

At Emanu-El, he encouraged congregants to oppose segregated housing in the city. Under his leadership, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., author Maya Angelou and other advocates for racial justice visited the synagogue.

Speaking at Emanu-El several years ago, Angelou recalled that as a young woman exploring religious faith, she came to speak to Fine.

Pearce called Fine "a real salt-of-the-earth kind of person, someone who knew no bounds in terms of his affection. He embraced everybody."

Fine left the pulpit after suffering a mild heart attack. His health and the pressures of running a large congregation prompted the change. "He reconsidered his life and felt it was time for him to move on to a position that had less stress involved," Pearce said.

After leaving the Reform synagogue, the rabbi served for 15 years as a professor of humanities at San Francisco State University. There, he developed a course on San Francisco, highlighting its cultural and intellectual contributions.

The course became extremely popular among students and generated much scholarly interest in San Francisco.

But despite leaving Emanu-El, Fine remained very much a part of the congregation. Said Heilbron: "So many of his congregants were his friends."

A private memorial for Fine was held Sunday. A public service will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 7 at Emanu-El, Lake and Arguello streets.

Fine's wife, Elizabeth, died in 1973. Fine is survived by children Lloyd (and Michelle) Ackerman, Jonathan (and Sharon) Fine, and Deborah (and Anthony) Norris. He leaves behind grandchildren Sarah Ackerman and Elizabeth and Victoria Norris, and many nieces and nephews. And he is survived by a sister, Dorothy (and Alan) Davidson. Another sister, Izetta Dorfman, passed away.

"He left a legacy of love and strength to his entire family," said daughter Deborah Norris.

Contributions can be sent to the Elizabeth Fine Museum at Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St., S.F., CA 94118.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

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