Retiring rabbi reflects on a career in activism

The Jewish community’s involvement in the Darfur issue is a positive sign that it has matured and is a bit more global in its thinking, according to Rabbi Sheldon Lewis, who has been very active on the issue.

Lewis, who has been standing in regular vigils in downtown Palo Alto to call attention to the Darfur genocide, will join the massive protest Sunday, April 30 on the Golden Gate Bridge.

When he first joined the rabbinate in 1969, Lewis felt that Jews “were often turned inward, and maybe [that was what was] needed. But what worried me was we were narrowing our vision as a community.”

The rabbi, who goes by “Shelly” to most, can now count the days he has left as spiritual leader of Palo Alto’s Conservative synagogue Kol Emeth as he retires close to his 65th birthday in June. The synagogue is honoring him and his wife, Lorri, on Sunday afternoon, April 23.

On the eve of his retirement, Lewis looked back at his long career of activism on the issues of the day.

“I think we live more up to the mandate of our tradition when we are much more embracing,” he noted.

As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, Lewis was involved in projects in the African-American community. As a student of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the rabbi-to-be was greatly influenced by his teacher’s involvement in the civil rights movement.

“I am a product of the ’60s, and Heschel was a powerful model for me. I just drank him in.”

When he was still at JTS, Lewis was active in protests against the Vietnam War. But upon ordination, he made the difficult decision to don a uniform of the United States Army and enlist — as a chaplain.

He married Lorri, and they had 30 days together before he left for Vietnam for one year.

“It was a real struggle for me since clergy were exempt from the draft,” he said. “I knew that most of the soldiers were not there because they loved the military or loved the war, and I felt they needed to be served by rabbis who understood.”

When Lewis first arrived in Palo Alto, he said, “it took me about 24 hours to get involved in the Soviet Jewry movement.”

Calling that cause the “movement of all liberation movements,” he added, “that was the center of who we were as a congregation for years.”

Lewis believes he was arrested seven or eight times, all for this one cause, mostly outside of the Russian consulate in San Francisco. But he was also detained once on the streets of Odessa, where he had been visiting dissidents.

In 1988, Lewis joined a delegation of Conservative rabbis and other Jewish professionals to the border towns of Texas to see how illegal immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico are treated in the United States.

Lewis has long been a supporter of causes in Israel that promote reconciliation between Arabs and Jews.

Even as he retires to work on his “Torah of Reconciliation” project, in which he’ll be looking for texts in the Torah that promote nonviolence, he’ll stay active in a number of causes important to him.

“I look forward to being a little less concerned about representing the congregation’s point of view,” he said. “There’s a certain freeing up that comes with this.”

Rabbi Sarah Graff, who has worked with Lewis for the past several years as his assistant rabbi, said that many of Kol Emeth’s congregants believe that he is one of the 36 righteous people who walk the earth at any given time.

The rabbi’s final thoughts: “All my life I wanted more than anything to serve others and to serve the Jewish people, and I’ve had such a rich opportunity in Palo Alto. I’m eternally grateful for that. Every day has been so full and varied and challenging and I know I’ve made a lot a mistakes on the way, but I’ve had so many opportunities to serve.”

The afternoon honoring the Lewises will begin 2 p.m. Sunday, April 23 at Congregation Kol Emeth, 4175 Manuela Ave., Palo Alto. Free. Information: (650) 948-7498.

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."