Rabbi Weiner retires from Sherith Israel Saying goodbye after 32 years

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Six-year-old Jacob Winick had better watch his chess game.

His grandfather will soon have more time on his hands, and will be studying up on how to beat him.

Jacob's grandfather is Rabbi Martin S. Weiner, who at the end of the month will retire from San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel after 32 years of service.

Weiner's retirement signifies a complete transition at one of San Francisco's oldest and largest synagogues. Cantor Martin Feldman is also retiring this month and assistant Rabbi Stephen Kahn will take a position as senior rabbi in Scottsdale, Ariz. Rabbi Larry Raphael, who last worked for Union of American Hebrew Congregations, will be replacing Weiner and Cantor Rita Glassman is replacing Feldman.

For the native San Franciscan, who celebrated his 65th birthday earlier this month, it's time. "I have loved my 39 years in the rabbinate with no 'buts,'" the rabbi said. "But I'm now ready and looking forward to a new chapter."

Weiner credits the late Rabbi Saul E. White, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Sholom, with influencing him to choose 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 told the Bulletin in 2001.

After ordination at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, he served Baltimore's Congregation Oheb Shalom for eight years before returning to Sherith Israel.

At the time, the synagogue had about 450 family units. Today, it has about 1,100. Kahn, the departing assistant rabbi, referred to it as "the house that Marty built."

Weiner, who is not only ending his rabbinate, but recently ended a two-year term as president of the Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis, has experienced a career filled with too many highlights to mention. But when pressed, he can name some things he's especially proud of.

"I'm proud of the way our congregation welcomed our brothers and sisters from the former Soviet Union," he said, especially since some members of the community feared such immigrants would take advantage of their generosity. But as his own grandparents came from Russia in the last century, he saw the emigres as a "modern-day Exodus."

Just back from the ordination of Sherith Israel congregant Jessica Zimmerman, in New York, Weiner said he was proud that he encouraged six individuals — including his own son Daniel — to become rabbis.

"He's really had a full career where his students have become president of the synagogue and assistant rabbi," said Kahn. "I know people think of him as this great pastoral rabbi to people our parents' age, but he raised an entire generation of Jewish leadership in San Francisco."

In addition to working with his colleagues, nurturing the early childhood education program, and pioneering the Leisure League for seniors, Weiner said performing lifecycle events — from baby-namings, b'nai mitzvah and weddings to funerals — was one of the most rewarding aspects of the job.

No matter how many b'nai mitzvah he's presided over, his favorite moment comes when the grandparent hands the Torah to the parent who hands it to the child.

"It's a really special feeling, helping people share their joy, and also in times of sorrow," he said.

He also recalled presiding over the baby-naming of a congregant he had confirmed, shortly after the family's arrival from the former Soviet Union.

"I remember meeting their family when they first came as struggling immigrants, searching for what meaning they may find in Judaism," he said.

In fact, that's one part of the job the rabbi isn't ready to give up. He hopes to continue to participate in lifecycle events, when asked, even in his retirement.

Weiner also wants to continue teaching, as well as spending more time with his grandchildren. And the thought of taking a temporary post in some faraway place like Australia or New Zealand appeals to both he and his wife Karen, he said.

Known for citing movies in his sermons, Weiner hopes to publish a book on Midrash and movies.

During his long tenure, Weiner also has been known for speaking his mind. An outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, he used to be known as perhaps the most left-leaning mainstream rabbi in the city on issues including Mideast politics. He was an early advocate for Israel negotiating with the Palestine Liberation Organization, and he was on the front page of the Bulletin in 1991 as the only local Jewish leader to support the first President Bush's decision to delay loan guarantees to Israel. He said so in his Yom Kippur sermon that year.

"You can't have it both ways — opposed to settlements and opposed to linkage," he told the Bulletin in an interview. "The desperately needed new housing for our Soviet brothers and sisters could be built in many places other than the West Bank."

Weiner's position gained him the ire of a former Israeli consul general, Anna Azari, who said "I would expect Jewish leaders to support Israel in these hard times and not to compromise the Israeli bargaining position."

His stance got him on the evening news the following night as well as on the front page of the San Francisco Examiner.

But in recent years, he has taken a much more centrist position, saying that Israel had no partner to negotiate with.

Last year, Weiner was on the front page of The Jerusalem Post for the address he delivered as president of the CCAR to his colleagues at a Jerusalem meeting. It was last March 2002, on the day Cafe Moment was bombed, and his tone was far more hawkish than it had been before.

In reminiscing about his activism over the years, Weiner remembered visiting one of his predecessors, Jacob Weinstein, on his deathbed, telling the dying rabbi that Sherith Israel finally had freedom of the pulpit. Weinstein was fired after only two years for delivering a sermon supporting striking dockworkers.

Most recently, Weiner delivered his address as outgoing president of the CCAR as the war in Iraq was in progress, and convinced the CCAR leadership not to oppose the war.

"I despise everything [President] Bush stands for except for him going into Iraq," he said.

His activism on a number of issues made his influence reach far beyond Sherith Israel.

Ernest H. Weiner, executive director of the Bay Area chapter of American Jewish Committee — the two Weiners are not related — said that while the rabbi has long been involved with AJCommittee, it was in forging interfaith relationships that he really stood out, especially with San Francisco's Catholic community.

"Marty has a remarkable sensitivity to building relationships that are normally in some kind of tension," said Ernest Weiner, who also complimented the rabbi on getting the various movements of Judaism to dialogue.

"It's not easy to build some sort of capacity to listen and engage each other," Ernest Weiner added, "and he did that not simply because he was a leader in the AJCommittee, but because of an impulse that came from within."

Rabbi Ted Alexander, spiritual leader of San Francisco's Conservative Congregation Bnai Emunah, joked that he long ago had to forgive Weiner for growing up in a Conservative synagogue and becoming a Reform rabbi. On a more serious note, though, Alexander said, "He was always ready to help a colleague. Whenever I needed his advice he was there, and I cannot say that of everyone else."

Rabbi Stephen Pearce, senior rabbi of San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El, said that Weiner's presence would be greatly missed.

"He is such a significant fixture in the Jewish community that it's almost hard to visualize his not being a major continuing force in the activities of the congregation and the larger Jewish community," said Pearce. "As a native of San Francisco, he really understood the community in ways that other people could not."

When asked what advice he would offer a young rabbi-to-be, Weiner said taking a day off now and then is mandatory, as is taking a yearly vacation. But overall, he believes, "I tell people it's an absolutely wonderful calling for someone who has a commitment to Judaism and loves people."

It is that love of people that Kahn said truly distinguishes Weiner from many of his colleagues.

"What I would want to emulate from him is his ability to have a meaningful impact on people one-on-one," said Kahn. "He loves people so deeply."

Weiner's concluding thoughts: "My main love in the rabbinate was trying to convey the beauty and inspiration of the Jewish tradition to people," he said. "And I hope I've done that in some small way."

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."