New rabbi at Sherith Israel also expert in Jewish mysteries

At age 57, Rabbi Lawrence "Larry" Raphael is getting his first congregation.

This month, he replaces Rabbi Martin Weiner, who retired after 31 years at San Francisco's Reform Congregation Sherith Israel.

For Raphael, he is returning to his West Coast roots. Raised in Los Angeles, he attended UAHC Camp Swig and met his wife there, and was in U.C. Santa Cruz's first graduating class. But then the rabbinate took him to New York (via Cincinnati), where he's lived and worked and raised his three children.

Though Sherith Israel will be his first congregation, Raphael has had a long and varied rabbinical career.

Like so many others, Raphael said it was Camp Swig that largely instilled his Jewish identity and made him want to become a rabbi.

He had numerous rabbinic role models at Camp Swig, in addition to his older brother entering rabbinical school. He decided that becoming a rabbi "would allow me to do a lot of things I was interested in doing: teaching, counseling and working with Jewish people of all ages and making a difference for people," he said. Then he added that "the initial motivations 36 years ago are still with me today."

After his 1967 graduation from Santa Cruz, Raphael was asked by the chancellor (the school was small enough so he knew every student individually) to stay on to work in a newly created administrative position. Though he had already been accepted to rabbinical school, he asked Hebrew Union College to let him defer for a year.

In that year, Raphael began the college's alumni association and helped get the bookstore up and running, among other things. "I was a 22-year-old pisher but I had the opportunity to do all kinds of exciting higher education things," he said.

Then at HUC, as his ordination was nearing, Raphael was asked whether he would move to New York to work for the seminary. His wife, Terrie, wanted to get a Ph.D. in anthropology, so the move suited them both. And in 1973, Raphael became the assistant dean of HUC right out of rabbinical school. In 1978 he became associate dean, and from 1986 to 1996 he served as dean of administration.

At the same time, beginning in 1973, he began leading free High Holy Day services for the New York University community and other unaffiliated young adults, which he has done until the present.

For the last seven years, Raphael worked for the UAHC, as the director of the department of Adult Jewish Growth, developing adult education materials for use at synagogues and directing the movement's annual retreats.

But with the UAHC downsizing like many organizations, Raphael found himself entering the job market.

Moving back to California "wasn't the initial motivation," he said. "The motivation was to find a challenging congregation, and then when I heard that Sherith Israel was open, I was certainly open to moving back. And the more I learned about it the more interested and excited I became."

While the eldest of Raphael's children is out of college, and the middle is in college in upstate New York, the youngest is still in high school. This means that for a year, Raphael will be here alone, as his wife and daughter stay in New York for her to graduate from high school.

"She is very happy here, and we decided it was best for her," he said, though he hopes she may choose Santa Cruz for college.

While many rabbis have written books, Raphael has a unique claim to fame: He is known as an expert on Jewish mysteries.

The interest began when he was still in rabbinical school. While visiting his brother and sister-in-law, he found a mystery on the table, and once he picked it up, he found he couldn't put it down — especially since he had a Talmud final to study for.

This developed into a passion for reading mysteries, which he devoured voraciously, until his wife suggested that as a rabbi, he should be looking for Jewish mysteries.

The genre hardly existed at that time. The only mystery writer who dealt exclusively with Jewish themes and characters was Harry Kemelman, who created the mystery-solving Rabbi David Small.

Raphael began doing research, and began compiling a bibliography of those mysteries with Jewish characters — though many of them were highly assimilated — and he found about 100.

When browsing in a bookstore, Raphael came upon an anthology of African American writers and suspense fiction, which gave him the idea to do a similar anthology of Jewish mystery writers.

"Mystery Midrash: An Anthology of Jewish Mystery and Detective Fiction" was published by Jewish Lights in 1999, and a follow-up, "Criminal Kabbalah: An Intriguing Anthology of Jewish Mystery and Detective Fiction" came out in 2001.

"I've enjoyed this a lot," he said. "I've gotten to be friendly with a lot of mystery writers, and I attend their conventions."

As he shifts toward congregational life, Raphael said he believes a synagogue community is held together through Torah, study and good deeds.

"Those are as important today and tomorrow as they were 2000 years ago," he said, and "furthermore, they really address themselves to how we should relate to God."

When asked whether he plans on following in the footsteps of Weiner, he said that as a non-native San Franciscan, he will have to learn a bit about the community first.

Raphael obtained a Ph.D. in leadership and higher education from NYU in 1990, which he believes gave him a perspective for understanding what makes organizations like synagogues become successful communities. He received a doctor of divinity from HUC in 1999, showing he believes in lifelong learning.

"What I like best about being a rabbi is teaching and demonstrating that learning and worship as Jews leads us to make this a better world," he said.

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."