Temple Sholom choir alumni return love to past director

Helen Raiskin couldn't have known what she was getting into on that day in 1967 when she asked if there was anything she might do at Peninsula Temple Sholom. She was the new wife of the temple's rabbi, Gerald Raiskin, and perhaps blinded by her eagerness to help.

So the former elementary school music teacher offered to start a youth choir at the Burlingame Reform synagogue. She remembers thinking that didn't sound like too much of a commitment. She also remembers being wrong about that.

"I volunteered to my husband as a temporary position and it continued until I retired," Raiskin said. "I led the youth choir for 22 years."

About two dozen of Raiskin's students traveled through a rainstorm last month to return some of the love they received long ago and to show her how it all turned out. After a rehearsal, the group sang before a family service on Dec. 13.

There are at least three rabbis among Raiskin's former pupils and several of the alumni — now in their 30s and 40s — brought children to the performance.

"We sang beautifully, and I was deeply touched," Raiskin said.

The rabbi's wife had to be persuaded that the gathering was a good idea. Finding alumni who had dispersed across the Bay Area and beyond took time and energy. So did coordinating the rehearsals and the Friday night event.

"I didn't like the idea, but one of my students kept instigating this," she said. That instigator was Steve Bloom, a child of the temple who grew up to be a member of its board of trustees.

"That's what she keeps telling me," he said, not at all sorry he pushed. Bloom is now 43 and the father of two girls who would have been naturals for Raiskin's talents.

"It was one of those whimsical moments," he said. "I wanted to bring back my youth and honor Mrs. Raiskin at the same time."

He was not alone in that sentiment. Holly Borchelt also grew up in the program, advancing from a member of the choir to become one of its assistant directors. She remembered that no one had to persuade her to join the group, which performed Broadway tunes such as "Climb Every Mountain" and "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" as well as traditional Hebrew melodies and prayers.

"I begged my parents to let me do it," she said. "It was the music and the temple and it was such a comfortable place."

Raiskin remembers being surprised at the interest of children like Borchelt. Sixty-five kids voiced their enthusiasm that very first year. They grew to 110 before other after-school pursuits — notably soccer and an increase in elementary school homework — led to a decline and the ultimate disbanding of the group in 1989. Every year the choir sang before the residents of the Jewish Home in San Francisco — one of the highlights of the year for the performers.

You didn't need to be a youthful Pavarotti to participate. There were no auditions, and anyone willing to practice on Monday evenings for a family service performance at the end of the month was welcome. Raiskin worked with what she had.

"I invented the group solo," she said. That way "soloists" didn't have to be terribly talented or possess nerves of steel, she said.

"We had a ball," Raiskin remembers. "It is important that children love their Judaism and if it came through song, great."

Borchelt recalls her position as being a sort of sergeant-at-arms, readying the troops for Raiskin, whom she admits could be quite a taskmaster. "Always," Borchelt said. "But we had so much fun."

That doesn't mean the reunions will necessarily become a regular December ritual. Raiskin has plenty to do as it is. Bloom may have to persuade her all over again.

"Well, the sign said, 'First annual,' but I was not consulted on that," she said. "We may try it again."