After 33 years at Bnai Tikvah, 7th-generation rabbi retires

His father was a rabbi, and his grandfather, and his great-grandfather. And three more generations working backward. Did Raphael Asher have much of a choice?

“My family thought I was too thin-skinned to be a rabbi,” Rabbi Raphael Asher said last week, having proved his family wrong for the last 33 years. It wasn’t his childhood dream, but by the time he was in his mid-20s, he recognized special acumen for Hebrew and an affinity for pastoral care. He found himself in rabbinical school and well suited for the work.

Rabbi Raphael Asher

Now Asher approaches his final days on the bimah as a full-time rabbi. Speaking from his office at Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek, which he has led since its inception in 1981, he notes that while he chose the same profession as his father, the late Joseph Asher of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, he could not have taken a more different path.

“My father was a refugee from Germany in 1938 and lived a very exciting but episodic life,” he said. “He lived and worked in England, Australia, Cincinnati, upstate New York, Florida, Alabama, North Carolina and finally, San Francisco.

“I wanted to stay in one place and keep going deeper. For me, it was more about sinking my roots and seeking deeper levels of tradition than my father, who grew up Orthodox and took all that for granted.”

And while Joseph Asher, who died in 1990, had a national profile as a leader in the civil rights movement and an advocate for re-establishing a relationship between Jews and Germany, Raphael Asher was more interested in forging connections within his Reform congregation, and between his congregation and its community.

“My father had such a refreshing honesty and did so many things, but he never started a congregation from the ground up,” he said. “He was my ‘installing rabbi’ here in 1981, and he made sure to mention that.”

Coincidentally, Asher’s successor at B’nai Tikvah is also the child of a rabbi. Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman takes over July 1, and her father, Leslie Gutterman, rabbi since 1970 at Temple Beth-El in Providence, R.I., will conduct her installation in the fall.

“I like to say I’m on my second generation of Rabbis Asher,” said Phil Weismehl, a former B’nai Tikvah president who was married to his wife, Nikki, by Joseph Asher.

 “Even though Joseph Asher was rabbi at an enormous, prestigious, historic congregation [Emanu-El in San Francisco], he had the same humility as Raphael,” Weismehl continued. “All the congregants were important to him, as they are to Raphael. I would call that the ‘mensch quality’ they share.”

Establishing B’nai Tikvah and helping it play a significant part of the East Bay Jewish community has been Raphael Asher’s proudest accomplishment. He takes special pleasure in the diversity of the congregation, from the standpoint of interfaith families and economic inclusivity.

Rabbi Asher on a field trip to Gan Shalom Cemetery in Contra Costa County

Joseph Asher’s congregation in Greensboro, N.C. — coincidentally, Temple Emanuel — was in many ways a model for B’nai Tikvah. Raphael Asher spent his teenage years there, by far the longest sojourn of his childhood. The temple and its rabbi were admired throughout the community, and the Joseph Asher worked closely with clergy from other faiths, especially during civil rights unrest.

Therefore, it is no surprise that Raphael Asher has participated actively in the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County. In fact, the organization’s recognition of Asher’s potential contributions led to the 1997 decision to change the name from the Council of Churches and to remove the bylaw restriction that a member was required to be Christian. He and B’nai Tikvah were in the first wave of non-Christian members, ranging from Jews to Buddhists to Baha’i to Muslims. The Interfaith Council honored Asher, a past president, at a Sunday afternoon concert in early May.

“The connection to the non-Jewish community is important to me,” Asher said. “First of all, we have a congregation with many interfaith marriages — 35 or 40 percent. And we have a an obligation to be a ‘light to the nations.’ It’s important to exhibit our pride in the prophetic tradition.”

While Joseph Asher was firmly ensconced in modern Reform practice, early on his son determined that he was “not opposed” to a more traditional direction. Raphael Asher preferred more formal modes of worship, which led him in more traditional expressions of Judaism. He believes that trajectory led to B’nai Tikvah’s comfort with its current cantor, Jennie Chabon, who trained in the Conservative seminary.

“If you want spirituality,” Asher said, “let’s go back to our own … not ‘Kumbaya.’ I don’t come from the tradition of Jewish camps and friendship circles.”

The interfaith concert was the first of many events honoring Asher, whose family’s rabbinical legacy appears as if it will end with him: his only sibling is not a rabbi and his two adult daughters have shown no inclination toward the rabbinate.

In his 33 years at B’nai Tikvah, Asher has officiated at 700 b’nai mitzvah and has invited all his former students back to Walnut Creek to celebrate with him, starting with a Saturday morning service on May 24.

“I love the age group,” he said. “I love the one-on-one teaching. As a 33-year-old rabbi, I couldn’t have much of an impact on my peers, but I could have a big impact on their children. It’s so gratifying for these children to acknowledge their abilities, and for parents to see that their little babies are capable of much greater things than they realized. It puts a different patina on the teen years.

“It’s genius, absolute genius … to ask children of that age to read Torah and relate it to themselves.”

A congregation-wide event will take place Sunday, May 25, at Craneway Pavilion in Richmond, and then there will be a farewell dinner on June 7 in the temple social hall.

Although he is completing Central Conference of American Rabbis training to become an interim rabbi, Asher has no road map for retirement … “ask me in January.” A trip to Israel and a little more tennis await.

“When you build a congregation from the ground up, you never know if it’s going to take,” he said. “This one did. And now it’s a broad, inclusive spectrum of the East Bay Jewish community.”

Rabbi Raphael Asher community celebration, 2 p.m. Sunday, May 25, at Craneway Pavilion, 1414 Harbor Way South, Point Richmond. $18-$54. Farewell dinner, 7 p.m. June 7 at B’nai Tikvah, 25 Hillcroft Way, Walnut Creek. $250 minimum donation.