Earl Raab, iconic figure in Jewish community, dies at 96

Earl Raab, longtime executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, an intellectual, a prolific writer and a leader in Jewish life for more than 50 years, died on Oct. 24. He was 96.

“I think there is no way to overstate the extent to which the community trusted Earl,” said Rabbi Doug Kahn, the S.F.-based JCRC’s current executive director who began working with Raab in 1982. “I had the benefit of learning firsthand from someone who could truly pull rabbits out of a hat.”

Raab was the agency’s first full-time executive director, leading it from 1951 until 1987. During that crucial postwar period, Raab dove into the issues of the day, helping to forge consensus within the Jewish community and reaching out to other faith groups and communities in key areas including civil rights, in which he had an abiding interest, and freedom for Soviet Jews. The author of numerous books and articles, including many opinion pieces in the Jewish Bulletin (this publication’s predecessor), he made his voice heard nationally on Jewish and social issues.

Earl Raab at work, 1987

“Earl was a mensch and a caring person who loved intellectual engagement more than small talk, who did not need to hear the sound of his own voice but was very aware when he could help bring a defining perspective to a conversation. He loved bouncing ideas off people and synthesizing, analyzing and coalescing,” Kahn said. “He had quite simple tastes; a good cigar and a greasy hamburger were pretty much what made his day.”

Raab was born in New York City in 1919 and had a peripatetic childhood; his family moved frequently between New York, Connecticut and Virginia as his father changed jobs during the Depression. Raab, an only child, moved back to New York with his mother for high school, living in rented rooms in Brooklyn that had no kitchen. Raab later recalled sustaining himself on doughnuts and hot dogs every day.

Raab attended City College of New York, where he was a member of a Trotskyite club and became friends with writers Irving Howe and Irving Kristol. He served in the military during World War II, and with his wife, Kassie, purchased a dairy farm in Maine in 1948 with the intention of running it and using it as a writing retreat.

In 1950, Raab visited San Francisco’s Jewish community on an assignment for Commentary magazine. He was impressed by the Jewish affluence and lack of anti-Semitism he observed in the still-growing city, and he saw it as a laboratory for the American Jewish community as a whole. Shortly after, he and Kassie moved to San Francisco where Eugene Block, director of the B’nai B’rith Survey Committee (later to become JCRC), hired Raab as the agency’s associate director. He quickly became executive director.

Raab’s commitment to the Jewish community was shaped by the Holocaust and World War II, according to Rita Semel, who worked with him for almost 20 years as the JCRC’s associate director (she would later become executive director).

“We saw what happened to the Jewish community of Europe, which was decimated by World War II, and we were determined that our country was never going to suffer from that if we could be of any use to stop it from happening here,” said Semel, a longtime Jewish, interfaith and civil rights advocate. “If one looked for a reason for why he did what he did, I think that would be the answer.”

During his decades at JCRC, Raab addressed issues ranging from fair housing to school desegregation to the Soviet Jewry movement.

Former Mayor Willie Brown, who attended Raab’s Oct. 27 funeral at Sinai Memorial Chapel, recalled meeting him in 1951. At a time when black families were often prevented from buying homes in certain areas, Raab would help arrange for whites to buy the homes and then sell them to black families, Brown told J.

One of Raab’s more memorable actions was refusing to allow Meir Kahane, the far-right militant Israeli politician, from entering the JCRC offices when Kahane visited San Francisco, Kahn recalled. Instead, Raab met with Kahane in his car and asked him to renounce racism and violence. Another jaw-dropping moment occurred when the soon-to-be-notorious Rev. Jim Jones, cult leader of the People’s Temple in San Francisco whose members later committed suicide in Guyana, came to JCRC and asked the agency to work with him.

“Both Earl and I immediately recognized him for the phony that he was,” Semel said.

In 1975, a firestorm erupted in the Jewish community when Chabad erected its first public menorah in San Francisco’s Union Square. Many saw the move as a challenge to the separation of church and state. Raab diffused the situation by assembling a JCRC committee, which determined it was acceptable to have religious symbols on public property as long as they were temporary and the site typically was used as a free speech zone. At the time of the controversy, Raab wrote in the Jewish Bulletin that it was essential to resolve such disputes without internecine accusations and name-calling.

“These are two genuine issues: the need for church-state separation; and the need for public recognition and standing as a Jewish group,” he wrote. “But there is reason for us to discuss the issues … rather than descending to juvenile kinds of McCarthyism.”

After leaving the JCRC in 1987, Raab became the founding director of the Perlmutter Institute for Jewish Advocacy at Brandeis University. He continued to write, including regular columns for the Jewish Bulletin.

Raab was an influential mentor to many people, including his five grandchildren. Marguerite Lauter said one of the most difficult things about losing her grandfather is no longer being able to seek his advice.

“We will be less good, less forceful, less ambitious without him,” Lauter said in her eulogy. “We really do need him.”

Raab is survived by his children, Earl B. Raab and Liz Lauter, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. His wife, Kassie, died in 2011. Donations in Raab’s memory can be made to the JCRC’s Earl Raab Fund for Public Advocacy.


Excerpts from columns by Earl Raab that appeared in the Jewish Bulletin, compiled by JCRC executive director Doug Kahn:

From “Our Jewish Testing Center,” Aug. 18, 1972

There was a time when the San Francisco Jewish community had the reputation as the “least Jewish” Jewish community in the country.   In the minds of those who so labeled it, this meant some combination of no Jewish neighborhood; no kosher restaurants; no Jewish day schools; little yiddishkeit; and little enthusiasm for “world Jewish causes,” such as Israel.    There have been some changes – although reputations always take a long while to catch up with the changes…When the overnight call went out for Jews to gather, in June, 1967, at least as high a concentration of Jews showed up in San Francisco, as in any other city in the country…And now, we have an interesting survey that was made of Jewish Welfare Federation allocations for local activity in behalf of Soviet Jewry.   Ten cities were survey, and the San Francisco Jewish Federation came out on top of the list, with respect to expenditures on a per capita basis.   None of this has anything to do with whether there is enough concern or action about Israeli Jewry or Soviet Jewry in any American city, including San Francisco.  But if there is any relationship between Jewish identity and concern with world Jewry, then the “San Francisco laboratory” gets more interesting all the time.

From “No Cockatoos,” Aug. 31, 1973

No newspaper is worth its salt unless it makes everyone angry at one time or another.  The San Francisco Jewish Bulletin has demonstrated that capacity in the last few weeks – which should gratify all of us who are sometimes angry at it.  But it also points up, in Jewish miniature a continuing dilemma for our free society.   If there is any Jewish public issue, this is it.  “Since the Exodus,” wrote Heine, “freedom has always spoken with a Hebrew accent.”  And in modern society, there is no freedom without a free press…Freedom of expression is obviously not the only asset a Jewish newspaper needs.  That does not guarantee quality or sensitivity to the needs of the Jewish community.  But neither can lack of quality or sensitivity be remedied by establishing “controls.”   In this period of ferment, it is more important for a Jewish newspaper to be independent than for its opinions to be always “right.”  In its independence, for example, the San Francisco Jewish Bulletin, which is partly supported by the Jewish Welfare Federation’s purchase of a subscription for every donor, has succeeded in stirring up the adrenaline of officials and official agencies of the Federation.  And, in itself, that’s not bad.  Moritz Saphir, a Jewish writer of the 1830’s said that “many journalists are like cockatoos: they pull in their claws when fed, and shut an eye when given a drink.”  Whatever we need, we don’t need Jewish cockatoos.

From “A Time to Remember,” April 18, 1975

April 1945: the remnants of European Jewry were being freed from Nazi concentration camps.  Allied soldiers, in shock, stared at the few ravaged skeletons who had survived…Thirty years have passed.  That is close to the usual definition of a “generation.”  Some people suggest that it is time to forget.  They suggest that it is time for the non-Jews at least, to weep less about what happened to the Jews a generation ago and weep more about what is happening to the Vietnamese today.  That, of course, quite misses the point.  The point of remembering the Holocaust, for the non-Jew is not to “feel sorry for the Jews.”  Jews aside, the memory of the Holocaust is also the memory of Nazism.  Other terrible things can happen in human history.  But Nazism — German National Socialism — represented a kind of totalitarianism which can be a natural outgrowth of modern industrial society, at points of breakdown.  Such totalitarianism can conceivably reappear.  It would undoubtedly reappear in somewhat different form. Those who look too literally for the resurrection of a comb-mustached Hitler, or a swastika-wearing corps, are also missing the point.  Next time around, if there is a next time around, totalitarianism will probably come in more sophisticated forms — but its essence, and its effects will be the same.  Recognizing that essence and those effects is one purpose for remembering what happened in Germany in the 1930s.  


From “Cowboys and Indians — Jewish Style,” Dec. 12, 1975

This is not about the Menorah in Union Square.  This is about the discussion about the Menorah in Union Square.  And about the childhood game of Cowboys and Indians.  You remember: the Cowboys were the good guys in white hats and came whooping up in rub-a-dub horses to shot the Indians, who were the bad guys with feathers.   Unless you were an Indian, of course.  In which case, the Indians were the good guys who whooped up to shoot the bad Cowboys…When some people suggested that there was a church-state problem in putting a religious symbol in Union Square, they were shot from the hip as “bad Jews” who were lacking in courage, pride identity, faith and general personhood.   Now, some people said that the Menorah in Union Square gave them a good feeling of self-affirmation in a time of stress.   Maybe there were some such people.  But there is also a genuine problem of public affirmations for Jews.  We are in the midst of an apparent burst of mutli-ethnic consciousness in America – Chinese New Years as public holidays, Martin Luther King days – and yes, those evergreen trees which are a kind of ethnic badge for white Western Christians.   Jews feel more secure in America (in no small part as a result of the battle waged by those concerned with church-state separation).  And young Jews want to participate in the new American style they want to shout out their Jewishness.  They want to be publicly recognized as Jews.  They may sometimes be mistakes in judgment, but their aspirations have to be taken seriously.   These are two genuine issues: the need for church-state separation; and the need for public recognition and standing as a Jewish group.  The San Francisco Jewish Community has begun a systematic discussion of the genuine tension which exists between these two issues.  There is no reason why Jews should be afraid to discuss this, even sharply, even in public.  But there is reason for us to discuss the issues…rather than descending to juvenile kinds of McCarthyism.  With what is happening in the United Nations, it just doesn’t make sense for us to play Cowboys and Indians with each other in Union Square.


From “Passover Advice to Soviet Consul-General Zinchuk,” April 9, 1976

Since you are a subscriber to the Jewish Bulletin, Consul-general Zinchuk, you will be interested I knowing what will happen in almost every Jewish household this coming Thursday, the first night of Passover.  After the blessing over the matzoh, the leader of each service will set aside one matzoh and say a prayer for the deliverance of Soviet Jews.  In that connection, we would like to offer a piece of friendly advice.  If you want to get rid of the Jews in the Soviet Union, you are going about it the wrong way.   Our advice, Consul-General Zinchuk, is that your country’s current campaign of official and overt anti-Semitism is a terrible mistake. Oppression only raises Jewish consciousness and works against assimilation.   You may want to look up the record of the Visigoth Kings on this subject.  Their 6th Toledan Council in the year 638 decreed that all Jews were to be forcibly assimilated.  But 15 years later King Recceswinth opened the 8th Toledan Council with a hysterical speech saying that the Jews still remained Jews; all other heresies had been extirpated but “this sacrilegious shame alone has remained.”  That, he vowed, would change.  But King Erwig came before the 12th Toledan Council to say, “With tears in my eyes, I implore the venerable assembly to apply all its zeal to the eradication with its rots of the Jewish pest which constantly comes to the fore.”  And so it went.  Freedom, not oppression, is the best climate in which to maximize assimilation and conversion.  But you will say, American Jews have lived in freedom, and while there has been some assimilation, the Jewish community is still stubbornly thriving.  Well, you have a point there.  But if you are going to lose either way – and you are – then you might as well opt for freedom.  At least that way, you would have not received quite such bad press here this past year, we would not have passed out thousands of informative leaflets to people attending your cultural event here, and we would not have mounted those couple of dozen rather noisy protest-reminders outside your consulate.  There will be even more of that this year – because things have worsened in your country for Jews; and because Jews will not disappear, nor will they be content until they have freedom.  It is exactly our determination on that score which Passover celebrates.  And that is why in each Jewish household next Thursday night, a Matzoh will be laid aside, and a prayer said for the deliverance of Soviet Jews.

From “The Gospel According to Grand Forks,” April 28, 1980

The Protestants and Catholics of Grand Forks were at each other’s throats.  A North Dakota law required the Ten Commandments to be posted in the public schools.  But the Protestant and Catholic versions of the First Commandment are different.  Which version was to be posted?  The school district of Grand Forks solved the problem by writing its own version of the First Commandment, and posted that!   If anyone wants to know why the Jewish community continues to oppose prayers in the public schools, we might start by quoting the gospel according to Grand Forks…Grand Forks demonstrates one of the main reasons for the First Amendment’s separation of church and state.  Even if government does not establish a religion, it will at best become an arbiter among religions, if it gets into the business seriously.  One can see a National Commission to rewrite the Ten Commandments.  How about: “Thou shalt make every good-faith effort not to inter-face with any gods other than those in whom you have finalized some belief, with the proviso that nothing herein shall be deemed to interfere with any citizen’s personal mantra.”   More immediately, which government body is going to decide which prayer is kosher? Then, which government agency is going to decide which religious holidays are “legitimate”? The concern is not so much that some given church is going to take over the state—but that the state is going to start making regulations for religion.


Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.