S.F. rabbi to head Reform movements CCAR

Martin S. Weiner, senior rabbi of San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel, will become president and Janet Marder, senior rabbi of Los Altos Hills Congregation Beth Am, will become vice president.

Following CCAR protocol, that means that in two years, Marder, who declined to comment in deference to Weiner, will become the first woman ever to hold the title of CCAR president.

Weiner's installation marks the first time a California congregational rabbi will be president. Rabbi Richard Levy, who was director of the Los Angeles region of Hillel, became president two terms ago.

West Coast rabbis have often believed it was more difficult for them to ascend into positions of prominence in the movement, according to Rabbi Michael Berk, director of the Pacific Central West region of the congregational arm of the Reform movement, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

The appointment of two Bay Area rabbis "speaks to the growth and importance of West Coast Judaism," Berk said. "When you put that together with ordaining Reform rabbis on the West Coast, in some ways we feel we're coming into our own as a significant center of Jewish life in America."

The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's Los Angeles campus will begin ordaining rabbis with the class of 2002.

While the president of the CCAR doesn't have any direct connection to the Reform seminary, which has three other campuses, the position is viewed as representing the voice of Reform rabbis, and over the years, CCAR presidents have weighed in on the direction of the movement.

Weiner, who has served on the CCAR board before, is following in the footsteps of one of his predecessors. Rabbi Jacob J. Weinstein, who was spiritual leader of Sherith Israel in the early 1930s, went on to become president of the CCAR after he left San Francisco for Chicago.

Each new president brings a personal agenda to the position. The outgoing CCAR president, Rabbi Charles Kroloff of Westfield, N.J., has made rabbinic wellness his focus, maintaining that rabbis often fail to take care of themselves because of heavy career demands.

For his tenure, Weiner has two goals that he encapsulates into two words: Torah and family. First, he wants to encourage his colleagues to find time to study Torah via the Internet.

Acknowledging that the demands of the pulpit can "wreak havoc with your family and yourself," Weiner said that rabbis have "a desperate need [to find] the time to study."

He hopes that with the Internet, rabbis will be able to log on whenever they have a spare moment, taking long-distance courses to continue their rabbinic education.

Turning to family issues, Weiner said he has witnessed the pain of divorce as it plays out in the lives of many of his congregants.

Because couples often go into marriage without sufficient preparation, Weiner, together with the UAHC, hopes to develop and institute "Preparedness for Marriage" workshops. Couples who want to be married by a Reform rabbi would be asked to participate in a 12- to 18-week course.

"Couples expend enormous energy on the ceremony, the flowers and the band," he said. "But they are not really talking through the pressures that can arise in a marriage."

Such a course has long existed in Los Angeles. Developed by a rabbi and his wife, it is offered by the University of Judaism. In addition, Bay Area Jewish Family and Children's Services has offered 10-session "Making Marriage Work" seminars. However, the Reform movement has not been actively involved in developing and delivering such programs.

Weiner takes the helm of the CCAR at a time when the Reform movement has experienced some controversy. When the UAHC canceled its summer teen trips to Israel earlier this month, criticism from Israel and other Jewish groups in the United States rained down upon the organization as well as on its president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, and the movement as a whole. Also, the resignation of Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman last year from his post as director of HUC-JIR because of allegations of sexual improprieties have left a cloud over the Reform rabbinate.

But Weiner has never been one to shy away from speaking his mind. He has become known for his work in interfaith relations, as a staunch proponent of the Middle East peace process and as an advocate for gay and lesbian rights.

Weiner, known to many as "Marty," is a 63-year-old white-haired, large man with a presence to match. In February, he will mark his 30th year at Sherith Israel, one of the city's oldest and most prominent congregations, with a membership of some 1,100 households.

A San Francisco native, father of three and grandfather of three, he was born into a family of lawyers and considered the possibility of going into law himself. His two daughters, Ellen and Elizabeth, are both lawyers, and his son, Daniel, is a rabbi. His wife, Karen, was a teacher and real estate broker, but now tutors converts and spends a lot of time with her grandchildren.

While he was growing up, his family belonged to Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom, and he credits the influence of its spiritual leader, Rabbi Saul E. White, with his choosing a career in the rabbinate.

While attending U.C. Berkeley, Weiner did a number of odd jobs, including firefighting, driving a truck, assisting a plumber and waiting tables. "I can still carry five hot plates at a time," he said. He also married his wife during that time; soon after, she put him through rabbinical school.

After graduating from HUC-JIR in Cincinnati, he took a position as the rabbi of Congregation Oheb Shalom in Baltimore, where he served for eight years.

And then, in a fluke of timing, he happened to be attending a CCAR convention in 1971 when he came downstairs at the same time as the search committee for Sherith Israel. The Weiners had recently bought a house in Baltimore, thinking they would be there for quite some time, but when offered the chance to return to San Francisco, they couldn't pass it up.

As his own grandparents were Soviet immigrants, he made Sherith Israel one of the pioneers in resettling emigres in the late 1980s; many Reform congregations around the country used Sherith Israel's program as a model.

"My goal was to welcome them in and make them a part of the community," he said.

Those Jews came to the congregation with little knowledge about their religious heritage. Weiner recounted with pride how he enjoyed seeing them through their b'nai mitzvah, confirmations, weddings and baby-namings.

He also happens to be a big movie buff, and is known for his sermons in which he compares biblical themes to movie plots.

While he is well-known as an activist rabbi, he is also a "rabbi's rabbi," said two of his colleagues. And according to Berk, who is one of them, that "is the highest compliment a rabbi can give someone in the profession."

Another colleague who referred to him that way is Stephen I. Kahn, Sherith Israel's associate rabbi. Kahn was confirmed at Sherith Israel. And just as Weiner spoke of White influencing his choice to enter the rabbinate, Kahn had the same to say about Weiner.

Kahn said he was the fourth of six disciples of Weiner who grew up at Sherith Israel, choosing to become rabbis largely because of the impact he left on them. Another of the six is Weiner's son, Daniel.

Kahn said his mentor "has this remarkable connection with people that is based on a real sincere openness that he has. He allows people to get to know him, and allows people to know that he cares about them."

Kahn, who returned to Sherith Israel in 1999, said that working with Weiner has been a wonderful experience; the senior rabbi offers "a good mixture of really givin

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."