Rabbi’s retirement plan: To be a better activist than I have been

Allen Bennett didn’t learn all he needed to know in kindergarten, but a prophetic experience in religious school when he was 5 paved his path to the pulpit. One day another boy in the class said, “Let’s play temple, and Allen should be the rabbi.”

When Bennett’s parents picked him up later that day, he let them know that’s what he was destined to become.

Six decades later — including 37 years in the rabbinate — Bennett has announced he will retire in June after 16 years at Temple Israel in Alameda, which followed 15 years of work at local Jewish agencies. His retirement will occur shortly after his 66th birthday.

A series of festivities is planned for May, including a gala dinner May 6, with KQED Radio’s Michael Krasny as emcee and San Francisco Congregation Emanu-El’s Cantor Roslyn Barak entertaining. State Sen. Mark Leno will attend, as will Akiva Tor, the S.F.-based Israeli consul general.

The dinner is at Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland, out of respect for Bennett’s colleagues who keep kosher. (Temple Israel, a 92-year-old Reform synagogue, does not maintain a kosher kitchen.) Other activities are planned, including tributes and a potluck picnic.

Rabbi Barney Brickner, by way of Idaho and Ohio, will assume the pulpit at Temple Israel on July 1.

Gretel Gates, a 60-year member and widow of Gunther Gates, the synagogue’s rabbi from 1947 until his death in 1981, said, “Allen has done a lot for the congregation.” She also commented on his contribution to the wider community in the city of Alameda, including in interfaith circles. “I know he’s very well-liked by the other ministers in town. I think that’s very important in a small town like ours, [where] the Jewish population is small.”

At Camp Nebagamon in Wisconsin in 1961, Allen is the second from the right in the middle row. photo/from camp nebagamon alumni association newsletter

A former president and interim executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California, Bennett also worked to cement relationships among local rabbis. In January 2011, he spearheaded an unprecedented trip to Israel that included 27 local rabbis from the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal movements. Never had so many local rabbis traveled to Israel as a group, and many of them are planning to attend Bennett’s retirement dinner.

Bennett, who was raised in classical Reform tradition in Akron, Ohio, took a circuitous path to the pulpit. Although he knew he wanted to be a rabbi early on, before his ordination, he “realized congregational life was not what I was seeking.” Instead, he was drawn toward hospital chaplaincy and spent “three of the most fulfilling years” in Rochester, Minn., completing a residency program in pastoral counseling and serving as Jewish chaplain at two hospitals.

He came to the Bay Area in 1977 to pursue a doctorate at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union, and “spent 12 years not finishing that program,” he said. He also hoped to find a chaplaincy post. But he said such jobs were hard to come by. Meanwhile, he was asked to be the spiritual leader of San Francisco’s LGBT-friendly Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, where he attended services and where he met his former partner, Stephen, whom he helped raise three children (Stephen was the first single gay man in California to adopt children).

In 1986, Bennett (far left, in cap) takes part in a rally against AIDS.

It was a time of upheaval. In 1978, gay activists, including recently elected San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, were campaigning against the so-called Briggs Initiative, a ballot measure that sought to ban gay and lesbian teachers from California’s public schools.

Bennett was recruited to aid the anti-Briggs campaign by coming out of the closet as a gay rabbi. However, he said, campaign strategists ultimately nixed that strategy, perhaps out of concern that it would distract from the campaign itself.

A San Francisco Examiner reporter who had already interviewed him agreed to hold the story until after the election on Nov. 7, 1978. Then the story went national, with the New York Times, the Advocate and other newspapers picking it up, citing Bennett as the first openly gay rabbi in the country. Twenty days after the initiative was defeated, Milk was assassinated and Bennett officiated at the funeral at Sha’ar Zahav’s small meeting place and at a larger memorial service at Congregation Emanu-El.

“To the extent that Harvey had a rabbi, I was his rabbi,” Bennett said in an interview archived on LGBTran.org. “He was, in fact, a member of Sha’ar Zahav. I don’t believe he ever came there to pray, P-R-A-Y. I believe he came there to prey, P- R-E-Y, and to get votes. But he was there often enough, and he certainly enjoyed himself and made himself known.”

In the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic wreaked devastation on San Francisco’s gay community and on Sha’ar Zahav, its Jewish center. Bennett, who later moved to another congregation, remembers being on call 24/7.

Dianne Feinstein, then the mayor of San Francisco, listens to Bennett speak in 1986. photo/j. archives

“At the height of the AIDS epidemic, I was losing a friend or an acquaintance at the rate of one a week for about five years,” Bennett said. “It was like being in a war zone.”

Rabbi Eric Weiss, executive director of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, which offers support and other services to those coping with illness, dying or grieving, was a congregant at Sha’ar Zahav while Bennett was spiritual leader.

“Before the AIDS pandemic came through the doors, death and grief were not commonplace in the congregation’s culture,” Weiss said. “When congregants were diagnosed and the community responded, I recall [Bennett’s] compassionate response.

“What I think marks him as a human being, and as an inspiration to other LGBT rabbis, is his generosity of spirit,” added Weiss, who in 1983 was the first openly gay student to be admitted to the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College.

The Religious Archives Network, which preserves the history of LGBT impact on religion, includes a substantial biography and an in-depth 115-minute interview with Bennett — which includes the nugget that his father changed the family name from Blumenstein to Bennett shortly after Allen was born — in its profiles gallery at LGBTran.org.

Bennett sounds the shofar during a High Holy Days service at Temple Israel in Alameda in 2010. photo/beth magidsen

However, Bennett emphasizes that gay issues are “not the major focus of my life” and don’t define his rabbinate. “It’s just one piece,” he said.

Other “pieces” include interfaith concerns and civil and human rights, including serving on San Francisco’s Human Rights Commission and as the Jewish representative taking testimony at the U.N.- sponsored Oakland hearings on racism as a violation of human rights in 1994. His biography on Temple Israel’s website includes an arm’s-length list of other civic and religious activities.

Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, said, “Allen has touched the lives of so many in our community. From serving Sha’ar Zahav to directing the regional office of American Jewish Congress and the East Bay JCRC, and then back to congregational life at Temple Israel in Alameda, he has had a distinguished career as a rabbi, a community leader, a bridge-builder with leaders of diverse ethnic and religious communities, and a moral conscience in our community on issues ranging from AIDS to race relations. His passion for our community, for equal opportunity for all and for Israel has led Allen to stand up and be counted in so many arenas.”

At a Tot Shabbat, Bennett sits on the Temple Israel bimah and talks to the kids about the Torah. photo/kimberlee macvicar

Bennett says he will miss Temple Israel, a close-knit congregation of some 150 member families. “It’s hard not to like the place if you take the trouble to walk through the door,” he said. Under his leadership, the congregation approved holding same-gender and interfaith weddings in the sanctuary if the couple promise to maintain a Jewish home and raise children as Jews. (Although gay marriage is not currently legal in California, the Reform movement allows its rabbis to officiate at same-sex religious ceremonies.)

Josh Cohen, past president, remembered first visiting the synagogue in 1998 with his wife, Genevieve Pastor-Cohen. “I met the rabbi and liked him enough to join the congregation after being unaffiliated for 30 years,” Cohen said. “He’s been more than just a rabbi; he’s been a friend.”

Cindy Berk, current president, expressed similar thoughts. “He was my teacher, he ignited my passion for Judaism, he inspired me in leadership and he was my friend.”

Bennett makes a peanut butter sandwich as a member of the “low-income group” at an interfaith “Hunger Banquet” last year in Oakland. photo/alix wall

Bennett’s greatest regret: “There are so many things in which I’d like to be involved. I always wanted to be a better activist than I have been,” he said, citing gay rights, anti-war, pro-choice, anti-poverty, immigration, hunger and genocide. “The list is huge.”

In retirement, Bennett plans to spend three months a year consulting for Congregation Shir Hatzafon, the liberal synagogue of Copenhagen, Denmark, and four to six months a year in Jerusalem volunteering for progressive organizations “that the Israeli rabbinate loves to hate.” During the rest of the year, he hopes to visit all 58 U.S. national parks.

“If I have not been the kind of activist I have wanted to be while I was gainfully employed, maybe in retirement I can sort things out,” he said. “Given a little bit of breathing space, maybe I can get it right.”

Rabbi Allen Bennett
will be honored at a farewell dinner 6 p.m. May 6 at Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland. (510) 337-0137 or www.templeisraelalameda.org for reservations and full schedule of other events.

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].