Anshei Hasefer dissolves as rabbi retires — kind of

Congregation Anshei Ha'sefer "is no more," in the words of the rabbi's wife, Barbara Frankel. The small, haimish San Francisco congregation dissolved after what she calls "13 wonderful years" when Rabbi Jack Frankel retired in January.

The rabbi describes each of his congregants as if they were family members.

There was Al, the survivor from Romania: "He attended the best yeshivas — and from there, he went to Auschwitz. After that he found himself in the Israeli army and now, here."

There is Dr. Edward Tamler, "the local, the regular, the wonderful."

There was the Eastern European woman "who grew up as a Conservative, taught in Taiwan, went to Israel, came back, and brought her husband and baby."

This was Congregation Anshei Ha'sefer, "not a building, a community," an independent fellowship that first gathered in 1986 to study and daven under the guidance of Frankel, who had retired from Conservative Congregation Ner Tamid in San Francisco. A traditional congregation, Anshei Ha'sefer was also egalitarian and informal.

"We built an ark, borrowed a Torah, bought a Pentateuch and prayerbooks," Frankel said. "I listened more than I spoke. I believed Moses: It is not the place that honors the person, it's the person that honors the place."

Weary from handling all manner of synagogue business, from the spiritual to the mundane, Frankel, who is in his 70s, "had to pull back a bit."

The congregants wanted to go on.

"I cherished every one of them," he said. "There was a lot of emotion at the last Shabbat."

"We had a woman — she was one of Mengele's experiments. She would always remind me it was Rosh Chodesh," he said. " And Dr. Mark Shelub, a sports medicine specialist and one of my confirmation students from Ner Tamid. And Mira Shelub, his mother, whom I encouraged to become a teacher of Yiddish. And she is the best, because she is from Vilna."

About 20 gathered for weekly services, 60 to 80 for the High Holy Days. The congregation was small enough that the rabbi served not only as spiritual leader, but maintenance man and administrator at the site in the Vicente Street Humanities Building.

"To lead a congregation, you must be able to read Torah and carry the Israel Bonds drive," he said. "OK, sometimes I go off-key. I say I'm doing it 'Texas-style.'"

Discussing his career as congregational leader, he said, "I miss it. But I just couldn't carry it."

Maybe not, but he can't really give it up, either.

Not even during the Frankels' trip to Hawaii. He organized a service that drew about 45 people in their hotel when he learned that the local synagogue had closed for Christmas and the secular New Year.

"I was the only one with a kippah, the only one with a siddur, the only one with a Pentateuch," he said, chuckling. "I said, 'You want to daven without a kippah? That's your bag.' I sent everybody to their room to get a Gideon Bible. That's got to be the first Shabbat with a Gideon Bible. Two and a half hours, they were still talking and reading."

Barbara Frankel also loved the closeness of the congregation but is content with her husband's retirement.

"We had 13 wonderful years, then the rabbi decided he'd like to relax a while," she said, although "a rabbi never exactly retires, because people are still born, there are beit dins [religious courts], and so on. But we are enjoying life. We always have."

He does tai chi, rides his bike, and listens to taped lectures on religion, psychology, history and music.

"I'm learning again," he said. "Listen, I'm not going to tell you what I'm going to do when I really, really retire, but the watch they give me will be self-winding.

One night, the couple drove to Oakland to sample a Jewish Humanist service.

"We almost went," he said. "But we either couldn't find the freeway or Gertrude Stein was right: There is no there there."

A larger congregation "couldn't do what we did," he said of a group that was family, both literally and figuratively.

He calls his wife "the rebel-tzen."

"She undertook as much as I did," he said. "And she provoked with questions."

His stepdaughter, Linda Schneidman, said the experience was irreplaceable. "For my son to have been able to read Torah with his grandfather was really wonderful."

The Schneidmans have begun attending Congregation Sherith Israel "because we have little children, and they need to go to religious school."

But after being "involved so intimately" with her stepfather's congregation, she said, "We will miss it."

Frankel is looking for someone who might need "a few extra books and things."

But his mind is still hungry for Torah.

Not eager to hold the fort, he still yearns to gather for friendship and study.

Said Frankel: "To get together once a month, bring a Torah, meet in one another's homes — I would love it."

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.