Rebbetzin Helen Raiskin of Temple Sholom dies at 75

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Helen Ruth Raiskin once said, “I will never marry a rabbi.” Yet marry one she did, and she served as the First Lady of Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame for 37 years.

Raiskin died at her Burlingame home, on Tuesday, Feb. 3. She was 75.

Born Helen Reich on June 20, 1928, she was raised in an Orthodox family in East Liverpool, Ohio.

She graduated from Case Western Reserve University and came to the Bay Area about 50 years ago.

A founder and board member of Lafayette’s Temple Isaiah, she also was a founding member of Contra Costa Hadassah.

In 1967, she married Rabbi Gerald Raiskin.

An elementary school teacher for 13 years, she devoted most of her time raising her four children and helping the Jewish community.

She performed with the Children’s Drama Service of the National Council of Jewish Women and served on the board of the State of Israel Bonds.

Both Raiskins were active with the Bay Area Council of Soviet Jewry, making two trips to the Soviet Union to visit refuseniks. Over the years, she assumed various leadership roles with the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, serving as the campaign chair for the North Peninsula Women’s Division and vice president of education.

She also served as vice president of the JCF as well as its campaign chair and president of its Women’s Division.

She also was a member of the Women’s Alliance, and was considered the “Mother of all Presidents.”

In 1989, at the age of 60, Raiskin became a bat mitzvah, something she was unable to do as an Orthodox girl. She was afraid that as the rabbi’s wife, “I’d be expected to be perfect,” she told the Jewish Bulletin in 1989.

As she further told the Bulletin, “I felt it expressed my strong desire to show that women are equal in Reform Judaism. I very vividly stated [in my speech] that men’s prayers are [typically] heard more fervently than mine, and by formally becoming the daughter of a commandment, I was declaring I’m as equal as the son of a commandment.”

Some 400 people attended her bat mitzvah.

“We didn’t have a big elaborate dinner-dance,” she explained, “but I had to do all the things a bat mitzvah mother does — and be the bat mitzvah, too.”

She was also active with the American Committee for Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem.

Perhaps her greatest Jewish involvement was as rebbetzin of Peninsula Temple Sholom, a role she had since she married Raiskin.

At its women’s auxiliary board meetings, she gave the opening prayers, and received its prestigious Woman of Valor Award.

In 1967, she started a youth choir, which she continued to lead for 22 years. “I volunteered to my husband as a temporary position and it continued until I retired,” she told the Bulletin in 2003. Just last year, many of her students returned to the synagogue, to have a reunion choir performance.

“I didn’t like the idea,” she said, “but one of my students kept instigating this.”

Holly Borchelt, a long-ago choir participant, said that Raiskin could be quite the taskmaster, “but we had so much fun.”

In addition to her husband, Raiskin is survived by her son, Sherman Spitz of Irvine; daughters Rhonda Harris of West Hills, Julee Raiskin of Eugene, Ore., and Jordana Raiskin of Austin, Texas; seven grandchildren; and her brother, Rabbi Joseph Reich of New York.

Donations can be sent to the Rabbi Gerald and Helen Raiskin Torah Center at Peninsula Temple Sholom, 1655 Sebastian Dr., Burlingame, CA 94010.

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."