Milestones, triumphs and plans for tomorrow

Ted Alexander

Rabbi Ted Alexander was in the wholesale swimsuit business when a “little group of German people” asked him to serve as their spiritual leader.

Though Alexander had wanted to be a rabbi from a very young age — he is a fourth-generation rabbi who used to drape a towel over his shoulders and parade around the house with an upright pillow — when he arrived in San Francisco from his native Berlin via Shanghai, he found himself going into business.

Though he had helped found Walnut Creek’s Congregation B’nai Shalom and served as a part-time rabbi there and elsewhere, he disliked the American system.

“It was the end of World War II and there was a shortage of rabbis,” he said. “But I only wanted a pulpit where I could stay for 20 years. Knowing the American system, I knew they often give you a two-year contract, and then when many people in your congregation don’t like the color of your ties, you have to move on.”

When Alexander got the call from Congregation B’nai Emunah in 1968, he wasn’t sure what to do.

“They had an American rabbi for a brief time, and he was a good friend. When I discussed it with him, he said, ‘Don’t waste your time — they’re going to close.'”

Alexander decided not to follow his friend’s advice. He changed the sermons from German to English. He started a capital campaign, which eventually raised enough to buy a building. And the San Francisco congregation affiliated with the Conservative movement.

The thought of retiring is not easy for the 84-years-young rabbi, who commutes from Danville. He considers the congregation “his baby” — as evident by his “Emunah1” license plate.

“My family wanted me to get out of it some time ago but it’s my baby,” he confirmed. “After 37 years, I want it to thrive. I could have had pulpits that paid much more, but this was my baby. I love it, and I want to do what’s right for them.”

Alexander said that every day with his congregants has been the highlight of his career. “We are a family,” he said, noting that members come from as far away as Lake Tahoe and Martinez because of the atmosphere at B’nai Emunah.

Though the number of families has gone from about 160 to 125 currently, Alexander says there’s been a change in the types of members. Up to a third of the households are Jews-by-choice.

“We have more dedicated, observant people now,” he said. “It’s a different generation.”

Alexander would like to be remembered primarily for his ability to transmit his love of Judaism to his students. “I happen to be a very chauvinistic Jew,” he said.

He is also proud of the fact that everyone, including the children, calls him “Ted.”

“The rabbi is not a special person,” he said. “Nine rabbis don’t make a minyan, 10 people do.” He tends to take a hands-off approach, sitting with congregants at services rather than on the bimah.

“I hope I’ve taught that a synagogue is not just a house of prayer but a second home, a home away from home,” he said.

After retiring this year, Alexander plans to continue teaching at Lehrhaus Judaica, and said he might also teach at Contra Costa Jewish Day School. He might also help some smaller communities without a permanent rabbi.

He’ll continue to attend services at B’nai Emunah, saying, “It hasn’t been a profession, I’ve been part of the congregation.”

And will he continue to perform lifecycle events? “If they want me, I won’t say no. When my congregation needs me, I’ll be there.”

Steven Chester

Rabbi Steven Chester loved his congregation in Stockton, but he had so many Oakland connections that coming to Temple Sinai in 1989 was a natural move. Also, after working at two synagogues — each the only one in town — he was excited to be in a larger metropolitan area, with other rabbinical colleagues to learn from.

Temple Sinai served approximately 600 families when he arrived. “It seemed like it had tremendous potential. It was a vital congregation that was growing into a larger one.”

He was right about that. It’s now up to 925.

Chester said the highlight of his tenure at Sinai is in seeing how his congregation responded to tragedy. In 1991, seven percent of his congregants — some 40 families — lost their homes in the Oakland Hills fire. And in 1994, an 18-year-old congregant, Robert Ross, broke his neck and became a quadriplegic.

In both cases, said Chester, “the response of the congregation was unbelievable.” Congregants supported the families who lost their homes, as well as Ross’ family, both financially and emotionally.

When first interviewed for the job, Chester was asked whether he would be interested in helping establish a nursery school. He was. “With the help of a few individuals, we now have a very active, vibrant nursery school that keeps expanding,” he said.

Those are some of the larger things, but there is the accumulation of the smaller ones, too, said Chester, that occurred in sharing lifecycle events with families.

“To be there for both the joyous times and the difficult times, and the eyes you see light up when you teach something and it comes across, those are highlights, too.”

Chester said his Reform congregation is now embarking on a capital campaign, because it has outgrown the existing building.

“When I leave, I want Temple Sinai to be a strong, vibrant, vital congregation that contributes to Jewish life in the East Bay, nationally and internationally,” he said.

Chester, who will be 65 when he steps down, plans on staying in the area, at least for now. He hopes to study more Midrash, read more novels, teach, and volunteer for both Jewish and non-Jewish causes. He and his wife hope to travel. And he is looking forward to spending some evenings at home.

Chester complimented his rabbi emeritus, Samuel Broude, as being a model to work with, and said he hopes to follow in Broude’s footsteps. He probably will refrain from doing lifecycle events for congregants unless they are his close personal friends.

“This congregation has vision and vitality,” Chester said. “We have third-generation families and young families. In many congregations, when you have a lot of new growth, your older members can be made to feel it’s not for them. But our old-timers come and say, ‘I don’t know anyone anymore, but I’m so excited to see how it’s growing.’ There’s a general buy-in of the excitement by all members of the congregation.”

Gordon Freeman

Gordon Freeman will have been Congregation B’nai Shalom’s only full-time rabbi when he retires after 38 years of serving the Conservative synagogue in Walnut Creek.

Even though he is a Bay Area native with deep roots in Contra Costa County, he had no plans to stay so long. “When we bought our home, we took a higher interest rate to avoid a penalty rate,” should they pay it off early, he said.

It was the creativity of the congregants — only 60 families when he arrived — that won him over. When they needed funds to purchase a Torah, said Freeman, they collected Blue Chip stamps and cashed them in.

“When I heard that story, I figured out this is where I want to be,” he said. “They used their imagination to be able to deal with issues that for a lot of other places would have been insurmountable.”

Building a Sephardic-style sanctuary with the bimah in the middle, rather than theater style, was a highlight for Freeman, allowing for a greater sense of participation.

Another was B’nai Shalom’s selection as one of the most creative congregations by the Avi Chai Foundation, and its participation in determining in what direction synagogues need to go, as part of the Synagogue 2000 Initiative, a national study.

Freeman is grateful for being given the freedom in building community at B’nai Shalom, and also for having the time he needed to finish his Ph.D. at U.C. Berkeley years ago.

The rabbi, who will be 66 when he retires, has many plans in store. He’d like to rewrite two as-yet-unfinished novels. He plans to take more calligraphy classes — he has already taken quite a few. He’ll spend more time in the garden and with his four grandchildren.

As for officiating at lifecycle events, Freeman said he’ll do so only with the permission of his successor. “Everyone has to go through him, otherwise it’s not fair,” he said.

Freeman thinks he is leaving at the right time. The congregation now has 400 families, and Contra Costa Jewish Day School will be moving onto the synagogue property, generating a lot of excitement.

“The vision of the congregation should not come from the rabbi but from the congregation, and the rabbi should be there to implement it,” he said. “The burden was taken from my shoulders, and since then the congregation has taken that and run with it.”

Growth, he added, “always involves transitions, and transitions are never easy, but they’ll do fine.”

Stuart Kelman

Stuart Kelman never planned on being a congregational rabbi.

“To the contrary,” he said. “I was quite content living in the world of Jewish education.”

But when about 20 Berkeley families came together in 1988 to form a community that was both Conservative and egalitarian, Kelman agreed to serve as a part-time consultant. In 1992, he agreed to go full time.

Kelman’s highlights at Congregation Netivot Shalom include the “firsts” — the first time the congregation got a Torah, the first bat mitzvah and the first High Holy Day services.

Another was how the entire community grappled with the issue of gay unions.

“There was an entire process of studying and learning and listening to each other,” he said, “and on issues like this, the entire shul gets involved.”

Kelman explained how he led the community through an understanding of both the Reform and Orthodox movements’ thinking on the issue, allowing everyone who wanted to, weigh in.

“Ultimately, I wrote a tshuvah [response] on the issue, and that’s how it came to be, but the process of doing it was such a profound learning experience for all of us.”

That process is now being studied in rabbinical schools at the Jewish Theological Seminary and the University of Judaism. The same process was used in Netivot Shalom’s study on the role of the non-Jew in the Conservative synagogue, the findings of which were recently published in a book.

Kelman is also proud of the way Netivot was able to create a role for the rabbi that suited everyone, which meant “empowering congregants, and at the same time recognizing the legitimacy of tradition and authority.”

He is most proud of Netivot becoming a real community. “Especially in how it deals with people, particularly ways of death. We created our own chevra kadishah [burial society].”

In April, the congregation will be ready to move into its brand new building, so Kelman will be able to enjoy it for the next 2 1/2 years.

Calling the former Berkeley liquor store “a magnificent structure,” he said, “That building is going to enable us to do things we didn’t do before. But what’s more important to me than the physical building is the interior and what we do with it as a community.”

Kelman will be 65 when he retires, and he said, “My idea of retirement is not sitting in Florida.” He plans to play more clarinet, serve as a scholar-in-residence at synagogues around the country, spend more time with his wife, children and grandchild, and write.

While Kelman didn’t completely rule out doing the occasional wedding, he said he was leaning toward not. “I’ve invested 15 years trying to get this place going, and it’s time for me to move on. The congregation needs to move on also.”

Alan Lew

Though Rabbi Alan Lew had lived in the Bay Area for years, he was happy in his congregation in Monroe, N.Y.

“I really loved it, I was really happy, but all of a sudden this feeling came over me that it was time to leave. And at that exact moment, this pulpit came open. It was magical.”

It was also magical, he explained, because in his work at the Jewish Community Library many years earlier, he’d had a chance to meet Rabbi Saul White, Congregation Beth Sholom’s much-loved spiritual leader for 48 years.

“I always had a funny feeling about Beth Sholom, that it would be significant in my life, and it turned out to be true,” Lew said.

In addition, his close friend Norman Fischer, now the abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, had stayed in touch with Lew in New York. Fischer would often drive by Beth Sholom, and “every time he drove by there, he’d have this funny feeling that this place is going to be significant for me.”

Perhaps more so than with the other rabbis, Lew’s decision to retire came as somewhat of a shock to his congregants. And it is coming, perhaps, a little earlier than the 61-year-old rabbi himself would have liked.

“I had some cardiovascular difficulties, and I really need to reduce stress in a way that seems impossible being a congregational rabbi,” he said.

His contract at the San Francisco synagogue was up for renewal in July, and he was thinking of cutting back anyhow, but when this medical report came back a few months ago, the results just confirmed his decision.

“The way I handled the job is very stressful; it pulls you in a thousand directions at once. What I love is that it’s really intense situations every day, with people dying, marital difficulties, people in crisis with their kids and their health. It’s very gratifying being in people’s real and intimate lives that way, but it’s also very stressful.”

He plans on being involved in the congregation, but not in its day-to-day operations. He intends to continue teaching and will officiate at some weddings and funerals. He hopes to write another book and continue to conduct meditation workshops around the country.

When Lew arrived in 1991, Beth Sholom was in the 300-family range. White had been such a dynamic figure that his two successors paled in comparison.

“The congregation was very dispirited and entirely elderly when I arrived,” said Lew, “especially in terms of those who attended services. Especially Saturday morning, you saw only white heads.”

Beth Sholom later became the place to be on Friday nights for young adult singles, particularly during the dot-com boom in the late ’90s. “We were up to 700 families before the dot-com bust,” he said. “It really was quite stressful as we were approaching those numbers — it was hair-raising.”

Saying that he always tried to visit someone in the hospital before they went in for surgery, that kind of pastoral care became impossible. That’s when the congregation hired an assistant rabbi.

Lew said he is most proud of helping to return Beth Sholom to how it was under White’s leadership, maintaining that “Beth Sholom was not at the greatest point in its history” when he arrived. He also felt good about opening up the synagogue to people who might not necessarily have joined a Conservative one, especially gays and lesbians.

And of starting Makor Or, the meditation center adjacent to the synagogue.

“I never imagined I would be able to do that in my wildest dreams. It’s a great place, and so many people’s lives have been changed by being part of it.”

Citing his activism with the homeless, and opposition to capital punishment as other achievements, Lew said, “I sound like a really proud guy when I listen to myself. But more than all those things, I feel a great sense of gratification having been with so many people at such deep, life-and-death moments. Not many get to have that, and I’m tremendously privileged that I was able to stand with people at those moments.”

Sheldon Lewis

California was “never on my mental horizon,” said Rabbi Sheldon Lewis, a native of Chicago, who is known almost universally as “Shelly.” But Palo Alto’s Congregation Kol Emeth had an opening when Lewis’ twin brother, a physician, had already taken a job in the Bay Area with Kaiser. Plus his predecessor was a classmate from rabbinical school and a friend, who had loved it here. “So it seemed like something we should look into,” said Lewis.

He arrived in 1973, when the community was considered a “hardship post,” meaning it did not have many of the amenities of a more established Jewish community. There were fewer than 200 families at the time; now there are about 600.

“It’s been a privilege to help shape this community into a caring, sacred community where things Jewish are really taken very seriously and where we really care about each other,” said Lewis. “Our mission is not inward but outward, to try and make some difference in the world.”

Lewis called his weekly Talmud study class one of the highlights of his 31 years with Kol Emeth; the group will mark its 30th anniversary this year.

“Many people have come over the years, and some have inevitably departed this world,” said Lewis. “We joke that the only way out of the class is that way.”

Another highlight was his involvement in the movement to free Soviet Jewry. Noting that he was arrested numerous times, Lewis said that many of his congregants took up the cause with equal fervor.

While he loves the rabbinate and his Conservative congregation, Lewis also can’t wait until the summer of 2006, when he will retire short of his 65th birthday. “I dream about it,” he said.

He is looking forward to having less stress in his life.

He plans to spend more time in Israel, and on doing research and writing. Of particular interest is his project called “The Torah of Reconciliation,” in which Lewis has been trying to identify Jewish sources relating to nonviolent conflict resolution.

Admitting that it might sound crazy, Lewis said that he hoped his retirement would allow him to become a better Jew.

“Each day you’re in such a rush,” he explained. “I look forward to having good tranquil time to sit and daven the way I dream of davening, or having Shabbat the way I want to.”

He also looks forward to having more time for his wife, children, grandchildren, and friends — and for volunteering and gardening.

Lewis said he would help out with lifecycle events as long as his successor was OK with it.

“It’s been an honor to serve this congregation, many of whom really want something from their congregation and their rabbi,” he said. “These are people who really want to learn and grow. It’s been a great place to serve as a rabbi and to feel needed in so many ways.”

Gerald Raiskin

Rabbi Gerald Raiskin had never before been to California “when this congregation called me and asked me to interview.”

The native New Yorker arrived in a roundabout fashion — by boat — in 1956, never having driven a car or gone swimming. His would-be employers at Peninsula Temple Sholom recognized him by his black suit, coat and hat. He arrived on a Monday and was offered the job on Thursday, before he could even give a sermon.

“I thought they had already made up their minds,” he said. “I spoke ordinarily, not trying to impress anyone. I liked that they asked me to accept before I gave the sermon. I guess we just felt comfortable with each other.”

Though Raiskin was already in what could have been a lifetime position at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York, he decided to place his future in the unknown, out West. When he first arrived, he had to give recipes for challah and hamantaschen to the local bakeries.

Now known as the dean of Bay Area’s rabbis, Raiskin is the longest-serving rabbi at any one congregation. When he retires in 2006, it will be his 45th year at the Burlingame synagogue.

“My executive committee asked me to wait until my 50th year to make a nice number, but I think it’s really time for me,” said the rabbi, who will be 80 next year. “In all these years, I was always on everybody else’s calendar. I need some time where I’ll have that freedom to do things when I want to do them.”

When Raiskin arrived, there were a total of 60 families in the year-old congregation. Now, there are 750 families, many of them second- or third-generation.

Considering that in its early years, the congregation had to meet in various churches and hotels, seeing the recently refurbished building and school named after Raiskin and his deceased wife, Helen, is one of the highlights of his career.

Another highlight, Raiskin said, was that “I’ve always made a point to stand outside the school wing to welcome the children as they arrive for religious school. Now there are so many parents who grew up in our temple bringing their children, and it’s nice to have that feeling of closeness with them.”

For the past 10 years, he said, at least a third of the people serving on the board grew up attending the synagogue, and the same goes for many presidents.

While Raiskin managed to stay away from controversy over the years, he is proud that he managed to give his congregants a kind of Reform Judaism that was more traditional than they were used to. “I was more traditional than many other Reform synagogues at that time. I used to paste stickers in the prayer book, adding some prayers which eventually did come into the new Reform prayerbook.”

While Raiskin had hoped to be able to serve more outlying communities that have no rabbi in his retirement, the thought of doing that without his wife to accompany him is much less appealing.

Noting that his wife once told him, “You have no hobbies,” Raiskin said he was open to suggestions as to what he should do with his time.

“It’s an unknown land,” he said. “I don’t know what I’ll get into, or what to volunteer for. I have no idea. That’s what my wife was afraid of, but I’m sure I’ll figure out something by then.” Then, speaking of his children, none of whom live locally, he added, “I’ll go bugging my children and drive them crazy.”

He does not rule out being involved in a minor role at lifecycle events, but when it comes to officiating at them, he will politely refuse. Acknowledging that it would be difficult to say “no” to people whose parents and grandparents he married, he said, “I see too many rabbis emeritus who cause a lot of trouble in their congregations because they can’t let go. Once I’m done, I’m done.”

Ferenc Raj

Rabbi Ferenc Raj applied for the job at Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El on a lark. His son had just moved to the area a few months prior and heard about the opening. Raj was pursuing his Ph.D. at Brandeis University at the time, and thought he was more interested in academia. He reminded his son of that, but his son replied, “Just apply. Maybe you’ll get a free trip out of it.”

Raj applied just to please his son. But with 54 other candidates in the running, he didn’t think he’d even get an invitation. Obviously he was wrong.

The Hungarian native had never been to Northern California. He came for a long weekend, and during it, was asked to teach a b’nai mitzvah class of about 50 children.

“I met the students of Beth El and I fell in love with them,” he said. “They were not typical kids — they asked questions. They were concerned about the world and tikkun olam. I said to myself, ‘I am really a rabbi, I was a rabbi in Communist Hungary, and I dedicated my life to Judaism. Academia can wait.'”

Raj was born during the Holocaust, in 1942, and both he and his brother were saved by the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. He was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Budapest — which the Communists allowed to remain open — but escaped Hungary later, because he felt frustrated by what he was not allowed to teach.

After attending Columbia University and then serving a pulpit in Boston, Raj had decided to make his third attempt for his Ph.D. at Brandeis. It was at that time when he applied for the job at Beth El.

He arrived in 1995, and plans to retire in 2007, at age 65. While Beth El hasn’t expanded during his tenure — it has more than 600 families — Raj is extremely proud that the Reform congregants banded together to build a new synagogue that they will move into this summer.

“Moses had all kinds of dreams but never entered the Promised Land,” he quipped. “But hopefully, during the summer, we’ll enter our new synagogue.”

More so than the building, however, Raj is proud of many things. He wanted to make study the No. 1 priority at Beth El, because he feels it motivates people to do better in the world. And he is proud of the relationships he’s built with other faith communities in Berkeley.

“When I came I had a dream that I will have an interfaith Thanksgiving service, and now we’ve had it for the sixth year,” he said.

And while he’s enjoyed teaching all the adults and children he’s worked with over the years, he has particularly high praise for the Jews-by-choice in his congregation.

“We’ve had so many people who chose Judaism,” he said. “Many of them were members for 10 to 20 years and never thought about converting and I never asked them. But maybe it was something I did or the community did that inspired them to choose Judaism.”

Raj has a library of some 15,000 volumes, and said he is looking forward to reading many of them for the first time. The fact that he earned a Ph.D. in 1992 — his dissertation was on the history of the Hungarian Jews during Ottoman rule — will no doubt get him some scholarly appointments. He also plays a mean pingpong game.

Raj will be Beth El’s first rabbi emeritus, and he will have some role there, but the details still need to be worked out.

“I would like to be the nicest rabbi emeritus,” he said. “I don’t want to interfere with my successor, and I don’t want to interfere with the wishes of the community, but, of course, if I am asked, I will be available to help out.”

Jacob Traub

When Jacob Traub arrived in San Francisco, Adath Israel had about the same number of families as today: 250. The difference was that at that time, most of them were not American-born.

The Connecticut native served a congregation in Duluth, Minn., for four years prior, and he came here because “the Bay Area was a major challenge.”

The year was 1966, and San Francisco was the last major American city without a Jewish day school. Since the rabbi had young children, he was not about to let that continue.

“That was a first priority to [create] one, and we were successful,” he said. “There were a lot of people who said you can’t do it, but we did it. It was never a major priority of mine to live near a kosher restaurant; I could live without that. But I couldn’t live without a place to raise my children.”

After Hebrew Academy was established in 1968, Traub went on to raise the profile of the Orthodox minority living within the mostly Reform establishment in San Francisco.

Traub was the first Orthodox Jew to be elected as a member of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, he recalled proudly, as well as the first Orthodox rabbi to serve as president of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California.

He is proud that he got his Conservative and Reform rabbis to help him convince Jewish organizations that their annual dinner fund-raisers should serve kosher food.

For the most part, Traub said, “people were ignorant of Orthodoxy and uneducated as to what the Orthodox community could bring them and what it stood for. My overall highlight was the ability to represent the Orthodox or traditional community in the Bay Area in such a way that it brought a certain amount of understanding in the rest of the Jewish community. Orthodoxy was seen as being something that was old in the minds of many San Francisco Jews, and suddenly here was this young fellow who was fairly articulate and was able to show that traditional Judaism was not something that went out of style 50 years earlier.”

At the same time, Traub shared his thoughts about where Modern Orthodoxy is going.

“In general, Modern Orthodoxy is dying out,” he said. “The Reform movement is much more traditional than when I first came to the city, and the Orthodox movement is less liberal. Modern Orthodoxy is moving more and more to the right, and it’s something I’m not happy about. It will have to be reinvented, but it will die out before it comes back.”

Traub, 65, said that staying 38 years in one place was another highlight, as were the little moments that happen every once in a while. “Something happens where you touch someone’s life that really makes a difference. It doesn’t happen every day and it doesn’t happen every year.”

Traub plans to study Talmud — “my favorite” — and spend more time with his children. He may write a memoir, and if he does, “I may even name names,” he joked.

It would be hard to turn down a request to officiate at someone’s wedding if he had married the parents, he added. But on the other hand, “I obviously will step back, and do as little as I possibly can to get in someone’s way.”


Bye-bye, bimahs

The magnificent nine

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."