Teitelbaum honored for 10 years as head of Board of Rabbis

One would think that after 38 years at the pulpit of a large synagogue, a rabbi would look forward to enjoying his retirement. But said rabbi is not H. David Teitelbaum.

After he retired from the Conservative Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City, Teitelbaum became executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California, a position he kept for the next 10 years.

Finally, as Teitelbaum approaches his 80th birthday next month, he has stepped down from that position, and Rabbi Allen Bennett of Alameda’s Temple Israel has taken his place.

A luncheon to honor Teitelbaum for his 10 years of service will take place Wednesday, April 26 at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.

Teitelbaum said the Board of Rabbis position appealed to him because he wanted to be in the position to help his fellow colleagues.

There are 106 or so rabbis who belong to the organization, though not all of them come regularly to meetings.

“The calling of a rabbi is exceedingly important and being a rabbi is one of the most demanding jobs that there is,” he said. He thought his years of experience could be useful in helping his colleagues whenever they might need support in both their professional or personal lives.

“Being a rabbi is not only extremely demanding but anxiety-producing, and it sometimes can be a very lonely position as well,” he said.

When asked to talk about his highlights in his position, Teitelbaum spoke about how he introduced the topic of organ donation to his colleagues, as there is a myth that doing so is against Jewish law.

“That’s simply not so,” he said. “We told people that not only is it a mitzvah, but we encourage it.”

He also spoke of the rabbis passing a resolution in 2003 calling for a moratorium on the death penalty.

The Board of Rabbis has not issued resolutions often in the past 10 years — in fact, that very well could have been the only one issued during Teitelbaum’s entire tenure with the organization.

Noting that the Board of Rabbis is made up of rabbis from Jewish Renewal to Orthodox, he said, “I wanted us to make resolutions like this [more often], but at the same time, we had to recognize the great diversity of backgrounds and opinions within the board of rabbis,” he said. “It was not often possible to get a consensus statement, but on this particular issue we were able to do that.”

Most recently, the Board of Rabbis began a singles group for people over 40, complete with a database with close to 1,000 names, a Web site and events.

Raising awareness about disability issues was another topic Teitelbaum brought to the table, speaking to his colleagues about how to make their synagogues more disabled-friendly.

Teitelbaum had already had a few days a week to himself, since his position was not full-time. But now that he’s facing full retirement, he has plenty of items on his agenda. He and his wife plan to spend more time in Israel, where they’ve got a son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren.

He plans to continue writing letters to publications in support of Israel and against the war in Iraq. He plans to continue his relationship with Catholic clergy in the area, speaking about Jewish-Catholic relations. He plans to speak about his experiences marching for civil rights in Selma, Ala. He has also taken up painting, and is currently taking a class in acrylics.

Bennett, the new executive director of the Board of Rabbis, complimented Teitelbaum for the way “he spent a good bit of time shepherding us through tricky conversations on some thorny issues that had Jewish value components.”

He continued that Teitelbaum “spent a lot of time one-on-one nurturing rabbis. He would learn about ill health or an unfortunate occurrence, and make personal phone calls.”

Bennett added, “He’s a low key guy, it’s not his style to seek publicity. But on a one-to-one basis, he was a guy who reached out to people who would not think to ask for help.”

The lunch honoring Rabbi H. David Teitelbaum on his retirement from the Board of Rabbis is 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, April 26 at Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St., S.F. $65. Information: (415) 357-0633.

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."