Palo Alto rabbi reflects on a life of righteous activism

He says he had no idea it was coming.

David Teitelbaum’s admirer-in-chief — that would be President Barack Obama — last month stood on the bimah of a packed Washington, D.C., sanctuary and extolled the 89-year-old retired rabbi by name for his dedication to the civil rights movement during its heyday.

In March 1965, Teitelbaum and other activist rabbis who came for the famous march to Montgomery spent a cold winter’s night locked up in Selma, Alabama. Marking Jewish Heritage Month, Obama noted that the rabbis kept up their spirits singing “Adon Olam” to the tune of “We Shall Overcome,” adding, “That in and of itself is a profound statement of faith and hope.”

Teitelbaum (bottom right) in 1965 Selma with (standing, from left) Rabbi Joseph Gumbiner, Rabbi Joseph Weinberg, activist Irving Katuna, Rabbi Saul Berman and (front, left) Rabbi Gerald Raiskin photo/courtesy rabbi h. david teitelbaum

Marching with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma might have been enough of a brush with history for most people. But for Teitelbaum, who served as rabbi at Redwood City’s Congregation Beth Jacob for nearly four decades, it was not enough. Emphasizing his passion for social justice, Teitelbaum recounts an action-packed life in his memoir, “As a Mighty Stream: The Life of an American Rabbi.”

Teitelbaum will read from his book and sign copies at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 14 at Beth Jacob.

“I wanted a summing up of my life,” said Teitelbaum from his home at the Moldaw Residences in Palo Alto, where he lives with his wife. “I went through a lot, and I wanted to share that with people. I felt very much I was participating in turning points in history. Particularly in Selma, a turning point for human rights.”

To write the book, Teitelbaum had to do extensive research — on himself. The rabbi kept a lifetime’s worth of letters, diaries, appointment books, sermons and other records, all of which helped him recount his story down to the smallest detail.

Some of those notes turned out to be ciphers.

“I saved [appointment books] thinking I could use them for material when I wrote a book,” Teitelbaum said, “but much of it I couldn’t understand. I relied a lot on memory and letters home to remind me of things that happened. I also talked to friends who recalled certain incidents.”

Rabbi H. David Teitelbaum

Having grown up in San Francisco the son of Yiddish-speaking immigrants, and later serving as a chaplain during the Korean War, a pulpit rabbi and an activist on behalf of Israel and Soviet Jewry, Teitelbaum embodied much of 20th-century Jewish American history.

His father died young, which left his hardworking Polish-born mother to care for two kids. Immersed in Jewish culture, religion and tradition, Teitelbaum became a rabbi, later volunteering to ship out to Korea as a chaplain. There he saw the ugliness of war up close.

Early rabbinic postings in the South aroused his anger at the Jim Crow system and a desire to aid the civil rights movement, as his sojourn to Selma showed. He also traveled to the USSR during the ’70s to meet with and assist Soviet Jews. Writing about clandestine meetings and the hiding of illegal books, that chapter of his life reads like a spy thriller.

But most of the memoir analyzes his 38 years at Beth Jacob, where he became a successful congregational rabbi. “You have to do a lot of learning on the job,” he said.

Even navigating friendships was a delicate matter. “It’s very difficult to be a rabbi in synagogue and have friends look at you as a friend and not as a rabbi. When I was in the pulpit I wouldn’t dream of playing poker with congregants. Now I do, and most still call me ‘Rabbi.’ ”

Teitelbaum’s book, several years in the making, also offers insights on historic events that colored his rabbinate, from the Yom Kippur War to 9/11. And he spells out his God concept, refined over decades of contemplation. It allows for a range of belief and disbelief.

“I don’t expect everyone to agree with everything I wrote,” he noted. “But especially for people who have difficulty with religion, I hope what I wrote will help. There are different ways of being religious and spiritual, different ways of conceiving of God.”

Upon stepping down from his Beth Jacob pulpit in 1995, Teitelbaum spent 10 years as executive director of  the Board of Rabbis of Northern California. After that, retirement was official.

Teitelbaum today is happy and healthy, still together with Robin, his wife of 58 years. Their two grown children and several grandchildren fill up their nachas quota and keep the rabbi young.

“Last month I turned 89,” he says. “I’m getting older, but I don’t feel 89. I feel younger. Maybe that has to do with denial.”

“As a Mighty Stream: The Life of an American Rabbi” by Rabbi Herbert David Teitelbaum (Outskirts Press, 273 pages)

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.