B’nai Emunah’s Ted Alexander celebrates 55 years as a rabbi

As a young boy in Germany, Ted Alexander draped a towel over his shoulders, utilized a pillow as a makeshift Torah and played synagogue. He’d get to be the rabbi, his cousin was the cantor and the rest of the family was the congregation.

“All the other kids hated us because they had to sit down and be the audience,” recalled the 82-year-old rabbi with a laugh.

The United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism will honor Alexander tomorrow for his 55 years as a real rabbi — no more towels and pillows. And in those 55 years, Alexander’s audiences sure have changed their tune. So much so that the event being held in his honor is sold out.

Ruth Callmann recalled the day 35 years ago when she was persuaded to attend Alexander’s services at San Francisco’s Congregation B’nai Emunah, where he continues to serve.

“My friend called me and said, ‘You’ve got to come and hear our new rabbi; he’s wonderful.’ So I started to go and then a little more and a little more and a little more,” she said.

“He’s really made something out of that congregation. Before it was just an old-fashioned congregation based on good old times that weren’t all that good, I guess. But he’s made us into a modern congregation.”

For Alexander — a fourth-generation Conservative rabbi whose daughter, Leslie, is also a rabbi — a strong streak of social activism has marked his distinguished career. In his tenure at B’nai Emunah, it began almost immediately.

He took the job on condition that the congregation would join the USCJ and, within three years, become completely egalitarian — “not just tokenism.” And it did.

“Within three years, as I had insisted, some people were shaking their fists at me and saying, ‘We are leaving!’ So we lost a few people who didn’t want a woman on the bimah,” said Alexander, whose youthful demeanor and irrepressible energy are channeled into such activities as dancing with children during Saturday morning services.

Yet Alexander’s egalitarianism did not stop with equality of the sexes (though he was a very early advocate of the ordination of Conservative female rabbis). B’nai Emunah was one of the first gay-friendly synagogues in the city, and Alexander proudly points out that Congregation Sha’ar Zahav’s first board meetings were held in his shul.

And, not lastly, his many years teaching Lehrhaus Judaica’s introductory Judaism courses have led hundreds — perhaps more — unaffiliated Jews and non-Jews to embrace Judaism. As a result, more than one-third of B’nai Emunah’s roughly 200 member families include Jews-by-choice. Alexander proudly points out that one of his shofar blowers is an African-American man married to a Filipino woman, and they keep a kosher home.

“He’s someone whose special talent is to really connect with people at a very personal level regardless of who they are or where they’re coming from. He touches something in them many people can’t,” said longtime B’nai Emunah congregant Frank Kurtz.

“I’ve helped him teach the Lehrhaus class for a couple of years, and it’s mostly twentysomethings, people who are trying to make their initial foray into Jewish life. What I’ve observed is that they flock to him. They find something special in him that meets that need. He has this way to touch people in this very special sense.”

For Alexander, who was forced to flee his native Germany in 1939, egalitarianism is more than just a feel-good issue. He’s seen firsthand what happens when people are not treated equally.

“My whole life, I have been devoted to do my little bit to erase some of the damages done in my home, which was Germany. If I consider one thing a real success, it’s the hundreds of people I’ve brought to observant Judaism,” he said.

“Every time I convert someone in the mikvah, I greet them by telling them you are making up for one of the 6 million.”

Alexander fled his native land to Shanghai, where he was ordained in 1946. He quickly landed a plum job working as a purchasing agent for a huge British firm, and life was relatively good until the Japanese placed all Jews into the ghetto. Putting a positive spin on a very negative situation, Alexander remarks that it was only after being forced into the Jewish ghetto that he met his wife, Gertrude. They have been married for 56 years.

Even at 82, Alexander still routinely turns in seven-day weeks, driving to San Francisco every day from Danville, nearly a 90-mile round-trip. Retirement is simply not an option. Alexander is having too much fun.

“I love it. I love that we have nine people from B’nai Emunah who are now rabbis. I love to deal with people, feel like I’m doing a little bit for the future of Judaism,” he said.

“There were better days when I was somewhat younger and did not have arthritis. Otherwise, I feel very fulfilled.”

And, regarding his upcoming honor, “I’m not worth all that rigamarole!”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.