Harry Yaffee, helped found Congregation Kol Shofar

Harry Yaffee was a dancer. Not exactly a Gene Kelley or a Mikhail Baryshnikov. He was the kind of dancer who would stand up at a Congregation Kol Shofar oneg Shabbat and launch into a little jig, just for the joy of it.

Life for Yaffee was all about joy, and he had plenty of it. Harry Yaffee died Dec. 17 in his home at Shalom House in San Rafael. He was 97.

Kol Shofar loomed large for Yaffee and his wife of 70 years, Ruth Finkelstein Yaffee. The two were founding members of the synagogue, which opened in 1962.

From then on, Yaffee was, according to Kol Shofar Rabbi Emeritus David White, “at the top in terms of character and warmth, and wanting people to feel worthy and involved. He just had that way about him.”

“He was an elder statesman,” remembers his daughter Judy Zaborowski. “People would look up to him. He was very active.”

Whether as synagogue treasurer, or even just organizing the midweek minyan bagel run, Yaffee was there to keep congregational life flowing. “If Kol Shofar was a garment, he would be part of the seams,” Zaborowski adds. “Until they were too old to drive they were there at services every Saturday.”

Born in Glen Falls, N.Y., in 1910, Harry Yaffee, along with his six siblings, grew up in an Orthodox home. His daughter says Yaffee and his younger brother were the “bad boys” of the family, often taking home notes from the local cheder’s rabbi bemoaning the boys’ unruly behavior.

Yaffee tried college, but a budding wanderlust intervened. For a time, he rode the rails in Arizona, picked oranges in Florida and worked on cars in Detroit. Eventually, he attended what is now SUNY Albany, and though the country was in the grip of the Depression, Yaffee landed a job in Washington, D.C. as an auditor with the government housing and home finance agency.

It was there that he met a young fellow SUNY graduate, Ruth Finklestein, whom he courted by taking her horseback riding. In 1937, the two married, living in Virginia and then Maryland, where their two daughters were born.

In the 1950s, with their children then in college, the Yaffees moved to San Anselmo in Marin County. It didn’t take long for the couple to seek out other Jews, and by the late ’50s, the budding Kol Shofar community was underway.

“It was a very small group to begin with, maybe a dozen families,” Ruth Yaffee told j. on the occasion of the Conservative congregation’s 40th anniversary in 2002. “Since we didn’t have an official place, the congregation telephone was in our home. My husband was the very first secretary-treasurer.”

When White became Kol Shofar’s first full-time rabbi, he was relatively inexperienced. Yaffee wasted no time helping White feel at home.

“He was one of the lay people who raised me,” White recalls. “With Harry it was a feeling of being enveloped with warmth, love and caring. When he had advice, he put his arm around your shoulder and said it with heart. He made you feel valuable.”

In retirement, the Yaffees lived it up. In the early 1970s, the couple spent two years in Guam, where Yaffee worked as a government controller. The couple traveled the nation and the world, once driving a camper all across Europe. Back home, Yaffee was a veteran poker player and rarely missed a game with his Kol Shofar buddies.

As the years passed, the couple moved to Drake Terrace seniors residence and, later, to Shalom House. Even into his 90s, Harry Yaffee enjoyed life with friends and family.

He enjoyed it enough to dance.

“He danced all the time, even up until last May, with his cane,” his daughter remembers. “He would get up and dance in place. He had a love of living.”

Harry Yaffee is survived by his wife, Ruth Finklestein Yaffee; daughters Judy Zaborowski of New York City and Susan Brown of Kailua, Hawaii; and four grandchildren.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.