Dynamic Santa Cruz-area rabbi leaves em laughing

Rabbi Richard Litvak readily admits that he owns a plush menorah hat. He can’t deny it, because a video exists of him wearing the hat — as well as a pair of goofy menorah glasses and a dreidel tie.

When confronted with the evidence, the senior rabbi at Temple Beth El in Aptos laughs loud and long.

Laughter has played a big part in his 40 years at the Reform synagogue, and joy will continue to be important after his retirement on June 30.

Rabbi Rick Litvak

“We should accomplish important things in life, and also have fun,” Litvak said. “That philosophy comes from my soul.”

Fittingly, “40 Years of Leadership, Laughter and Learning” is the title for three days of events in honor of Litvak’s retirement.

“The theme captures a lot about Rabbi Rick,” said Beth El member Sheila Baumgarten, co-chair of the celebration with Toby Alexander and Eddie Scher.

On May 20, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and community leaders will pay tribute to Litvak at a Shabbat service and program, with a gala scheduled for the next day. A May 22 picnic will conclude with a groundbreaking for a new wing at Beth El that will be named for Litvak. Rep. Sam Farr, who represents the state’s Central Coast in Congress, will speak.

Litvak, 65, is pleased about the celebration plans, his new office (in the new wing) and his new title. His first duty as rabbi emeritus, he said, will be “to support the continued success” of longtime Beth El rabbi and cantor Rabbi Paula Marcus — the new senior rabbi — and Rabbi Shifra Weiss-Penzias, an educator who will be a pulpit rabbi half the time. Marcus has been at Beth El since 1979.

A  licensed marriage and family counselor, Litvak also will be available for counseling congregants. He will happily officiate at lifecycle ceremonies “when requested.” He will continue his work on social justice causes, write more about Jewish wisdom and teach classes in spiritual growth through the Union for Reform Judaism and the Mussar Institute. He also plans to start a Wise Aging group, a program initiated by the Institute of Jewish Spirituality.

“What I am most looking forward to is spending more time with Nancy, my wife,” Litvak said. His retirement also will allow both of them more opportunities to travel to Los Angeles to spend time with their first grandchild, 2-year-old Lila.

Born in St. Joseph, Missouri, Litvak grew up in a close-knit family that “actively practiced Reform Judaism” and encouraged involvement in interfaith programs and Jewish social justice issues. Family life centered around Temple Adath Joseph, led by Rabbi Myron Meyer, who served the congregation for 40 years.

In high school, Litvak joined a Jewish youth group and a Mitzvah Corps program.

 “Inspired by the model that Rabbi Meyer provided, in college I decided becoming a congregational rabbi would be very fulfilling,” Litvak said. “I also was inspired by the potential of living a life engaged in social justice and helping others to get engaged as well. I wanted to make the world a better place.”

John Leopold, a Santa Cruz County supervisor and former board member at Beth El, has high praise for Litvak’s efforts to do just that.

“Rabbi Rick has used the strength of our faith to help make the case for issues like affordable housing, workers’ rights and civil rights,” Leopold said. “He has shown me that you can be a great leader and also have a great sense of humor and compassion.”

Baumgarten credits Litvak with shaping the Jewish community in Santa Cruz County.

“At one time, there was very little going on here in the way of Jewish life,” she said. “Rabbi Rick recognized that we were looking for that, and he helped us come together.”

During Litvak’s time at Beth El, the congregation has grown from 70 member families to more than 500. He noted that he has known some members since birth, celebrating their b’nai mitzvah, presiding at their weddings and then welcoming their children. He also has officiated at funerals for people he cared deeply about, and comforted their families.

Litvak noted that any rabbi in one place for 40 years builds rich, close relationships with congregants. He said, “These deep relationships help build a genuinely caring Jewish community.

Rabbi Richard Litvak can be seen in a menorah hat, menorah eyeglasses and a dreidel tie at www.tinyurl.com/youtube-litvak. Details on the celebration weekend at www.tbeaptos.org


Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.