Rabbi bids farewell to Rodef Sholom, but not to tikkun olam

Ask Rabbi Michael Barenbaum about his favorite accomplishments over the past quarter century and he may tell you the story of the display aisle at Petrini's.

The tale began shortly after Barenbaum took the reins in 1977 as the spiritual head of San Rafael's Congregation Rodef Sholom. That first spring, his wife, Hannah, went shopping for Pesach, and found next to nothing for the holiday on the shelves of the old Petrini's market in Greenbrae.

"All they had was some random matzah" recalls Barenbaum, who is preparing to retire next June from the Reform synagogue. He says his wife was forced that year to drive into San Francisco for groceries.

The next year, Hannah Barenbaum returned to Petrini's and discovered a surprisingly well-stocked display of Passover items.

The rabbi's wife was so pleased that she approached the manager to thank him. It was no big deal, the manager shrugged. The switch was driven by pure supply-and-demand forces.

"He said, 'You know, there's a new rabbi in town and everyone wants to celebrate Passover,'" recalls Barenbaum.

"That was nice," he says, pausing to soak in the memory. "She just couldn't wait to get home and tell me the story."

Barenbaum, 64, has plenty of stories to relay as he wraps up a 26-year career at Rodef Sholom. He will leave a congregation that has swelled from 300 members when he started to its current size of 1,100 households. Associate Rabbi Stacy Friedman has been offered the senior rabbi's job when he steps down.

"The minute I got here, it seemed like a wonderful match," said Barenbaum. "I'm just totally proud of the whole congregation."

The feeling appears to be quite mutual.

"He's been there for people," said longtime member Lee Battat, who served on the search committee that tapped the young rabbi from Worcester, Mass. back in 1977. "He's been the most caring rabbi one could have."

That's a pretty compatible marriage, especially considering that Barenbaum wasn't even looking for a job when he was offered the Marin County post. Interviewed at a friend's suggestion while attending a Central Conference of American Rabbis convention in San Francisco, Barenbaum said there was an instant chemistry between his future congregants and himself.

"I told Hannah, I think we're going to end up living here," he recalled.

Battat and others say Barenbaum has created a strong commitment at Rodef Sholom to social action. Early on, Barenbaum was instrumental in helping to welcome and settle emigres from the Soviet Union. A decade ago, at Friedman's suggestion, he helped establish a Mitzvah Day program that regularly puts almost 1,000 participants to work on dozens of community-service projects throughout Marin.

"I think people want to do good things for people," explains Barenbaum. "There's a real hunger for it.

"You can just tell by the number of people who come."

Deb Grant, president of Rodef Sholom and a congregant for about 11 years, said, "We are so very involved in our community. That was always important to Michael."

Barenbaum also was a leader in the effort to build the San Rafael campus on North San Pedro Road uniting the synagogue, Osher Marin JCC and Brandeis Hillel Day School.

"I believe in sharing," says Barenbaum. "It looks like it belongs together and it works like it belongs together."

As for the atmosphere inside, "One of the things I'm proud of [is] our services are very exuberant and fun," he says. "There's just a lot of joy and informality in the synagogue. Our services are a little more hang loose."

A tradition around Rodef Sholom is for everyone to bring in their chanukiot for Chanukah services. The sanctuary is lit by the considerable illumination thrown off by thousands of candles.

The event is so popular, Barenbaum says, that at one service the combined flames triggered an alarm to the fire department.

"Instead of blowing out the candles, we put them in water now," Barenbaum says.

For nearly two decades, Barenbaum hit the road each spring to visit young congregants enrolled in colleges throughout California and occasionally as far away as Arizona.

The idea, he said, was to extend his support to students away from home, helping them adjust and build a new community of their own.

When he steps down next year, Barenbaum hopes to start on yet another project: working to establish a Jewish hospice in the Bay Area.

In his long career, "one of the things I've never had a chance to do is volunteer."

But all in all, Barenbaum says, "As I approach 65, I think I did all right."