Rabbi Martin Weiner, seen here at his long-time pulpit, Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, passed away this month at the age of 83.
Rabbi Martin Weiner, seen here at his long-time pulpit, Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, passed away this month at the age of 83.

Rabbi Martin Weiner dies at 83, leaving behind a towering legacy

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In 2003, when Rabbi Martin Weiner retired after more than three decades as the senior rabbi of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, he told J. that his “main love in the rabbinate was trying to convey the beauty and inspiration of the Jewish tradition to people, and I hope I’ve done that in some small way.”

But there was nothing small about Rabbi Weiner — from his 6-foot-4 frame to his uncompromising stands on issues of social justice to his impact on the communities he loved so much: Sherith Israel, the broader Jewish community and San Francisco.

Weiner died on March 3 in his San Francisco home after a recurrence of an ongoing illness. He was 83.

“There is hardly a Jewish family or Jewish organization in the Bay Area that wasn’t touched by Rabbi Weiner’s love and support and leadership,” said Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf, a San Francisco native who grew up at Sherith Israel during Weiner’s heyday and has been senior rabbi there since 2016. “He helped to build and grow this Jewish community.”

Added Weiner’s son, Rabbi Daniel Weiner of Temple De Hirsch Sinai in Seattle: “He served [Sherith Israel] and the wider Jewish community with distinction, passion and purpose. He was uncompromising in his pursuit of justice.”

Born in San Francisco’s Mount Zion Hospital and brought up in the Sunset and Richmond districts, Weiner was steeped in Yiddishkeit as a boy. His family belonged to Congregation Chevra Thilim and then Congregation Beth Sholom, where the esteemed Rabbi Saul White served as an inspiration to young Martin.

Weiner, who was active in AZA (later renamed BBYO) as a teen, graduated from the city’s George Washington High School and then UC Berkeley, where he studied English literature. It was at a college mixer in Berkeley where he met his wife-to-be, Karen Kricsfeld; the two married and moved to Cincinnati, where Weiner studied for the rabbinate at the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion.

After ordination, Weiner served as a rabbi at Temple Oheb Shalom in Baltimore before returning to his beloved hometown, where he remained ever after. In 1971, he became senior rabbi of Sherith Israel.

His career included leadership roles with many local and national institutions, including the American Jewish Committee, the San Francisco Interfaith Council and the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. For the Central Conference of American Rabbis, he served as president for a term, chaired the Reform Pension Board and played a key role on the Rabbinic Ethics Committee.

He was an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, a tireless proponent of civil rights and one of the region’s early leaders in the effort to rescue Soviet Jews. He was also an early advocate for bilateral peace talks between Israel and the PLO, a controversial stance at the time.

There is hardly a Jewish family or Jewish organization in the Bay Area that wasn’t touched by Rabbi Weiner’s love and support and leadership.

Mervyn Danker, former executive director of the American Jewish Committee’s Northern California region, fondly remembered Weiner’s long service on the AJC national board. “His presence was a very respected one, an admired one, and when Marty spoke, everybody listened. His words counted. AJC fulfilled his concerns as an organization that was interested in the Jewish community, that supported the state of Israel [and] that spoke out for all the causes he believed in.”

“His sermons,” said Rabbi Daniel Weiner, his son, “courageously confronted the issues of the day with a prophetic power and voice, as he rooted our obligations and call to conscience in our tradition. But in his day-to-day rabbinic life, he was best known for his menschlichkeit [human decency] and uniquely warm interpersonal and pastoral impact.”

Indeed, Weiner left a great mark on Sherith Israel congregants and his fellow clergy, for whom he was a lifelong mentor. Thanks to his encouragement and guidance, eight kids who attended services and classes at Sherith Israel went on to become rabbis, including Zimmerman Graf.

He was a listener,” she said. “He was present, and he really taught me how to accompany people. He taught me to believe in myself as the new senior rabbi.”

Her connection to Weiner began many years ago. A few days before her bat mitzvah, the young future rabbi was treated to one of Weiner’s patented “doughnut walks,” an experience he bestowed on all Sherith Israel b’nai mitzvah kids.

“There was a doughnut shop on California and Fillmore,” she remembered. “He would meet you at synagogue, walk you down, you’d pick your doughnut and spend about an hour walking around the neighborhood, munching on doughnuts, and he would talk about Jewish history, Jewish life, the importance of the ritual that would take place. I remember my doughnut walk vividly.”

Weiner’s children remember growing up with a fanatical San Francisco Giants fan for a father. Moreover, he never missed watching his daughter Elizabeth compete in a gymnastics meet, and he happily bought a guitar for his budding rockstar teenage son, who later became a rabbi. But as RKs (rabbi’s kids), they enjoyed other advantages. He gave his daughter private Hebrew lessons in advance of her bat mitzvah.

“My father taught his kids so much more,” Elizabeth said, “lessons his children have embraced and passed on to their children. He showed us how to always be kind.”

Though he remained active with Sherith Israel as a congregant and unofficial cheerleader for his successors, Weiner devoted much of his time in retirement to his wife of 63 years, their three children and six grandchildren. He never stopped indulging his lifelong passion for cinema (“Casablanca” was his favorite film) or rooting, often in the stands, for Bay Area sports teams.

But his prophetic voice, from the bimah and beyond, will never be forgotten by those who knew and revered him. As he told a national audience in an invocation from the podium of the 1984 Democratic National Convention held in San Francisco: “May we, as citizens, reconsecrate our energies to the task of uniting our too often divided society, breaking down walls of ignorance and reaching out hands of compassion.”

Rabbi Martin Weiner is survived by his wife, Karen Weiner; brothers Stephen Weiner and Edward Weiner; son Rabbi Daniel Weiner and daughters Elizabeth Engel and Ellen Stross; and six grandchildren. A memorial service was held March 6 at Sherith Israel. Contributions in his memory can be made to the synagogue’s Rabbi Martin S. Weiner Education Fund.

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.