Rabbi Gerald Raiskin was to retire June 30, ending his nearly 50-year career as rabbi at Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame.
Though he had been recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, it was a heart attack that killed the 79-year-old rabbi Monday, April 17 at his home in Burlingame.
His daughter, Julee Raiskin of Portland, Ore., said that he had come up with an idea for his retirement: He hoped to set up a desk at the Peninsula JCC, where he could answer people’s questions. He even picked out a name: “HaMakom: The Place for Jewish Exploration.”
He was one of the longest-serving rabbis in any congregation, and locally, he was called “the dean of rabbis.”
Raiskin was born May 31, 1926 and was raised in New York’s Lower East Side. His parents were Russian immigrants, and his father owned a candy and sundries shop.
Raiskin was the youngest of seven children, one of whom died as a child. His father died when Raiskin was 6, leaving his mother struggling to raise the children.
As a young man, he was profoundly influenced by his brother Max, who urged him toward the rabbinate. Max became an Orthodox rabbi.
Raiskin attended Brooklyn College, taking a leave to serve during World War II, during which he helped liberate Bergen-Belsen. After he finished college, he was ordained at Hebrew Union College in 1951.
After a year in Israel, Raiskin landed an assistant rabbi position at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan — considered a plum congregation. Then one day, he got a phone call from some families who’d started a new congregation in Burlingame.
He arrived on a Monday and was offered the job three days later, before he could even give a sermon. He became the first rabbi to give up a position at Stephen Wise without retiring.
When Raiskin arrived at Peninsula Temple Sholom in 1956, there were only a handful of families in the year-old congregation. Now there are more than 700, many of them second- or third-generation.
Raiskin, who was divorced, married Helen Reich Spitz, a widow with two children, in 1967.
The rabbi was known for his warmth, and habitually stood outside to welcome religious school children with hugs or “high-fives” — even when an umbrella was required.
Julee Raiskin said that children “were his thing,” and her father attracted them like a magnet.
He was a stickler for punctuality. “Raiskin time” demanded that services, board meetings and weddings all start not even one minute late.
Raiskin was known for always being there for his congregants. Admitting that her family “shared him,” Julee Raiskin said, “My mother was his full partner, which allowed him to be there for everyone.”
Jordana Raiskin of Austin, Texas, said her father’s favorite piece of advice was: “Always be a mensch, and the rest will follow.”
Rabbi H. David Teitelbaum, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City, was a close friend. The two were part of a four-rabbi delegation from the Board of Rabbis of Northern California to participate in the historic Selma-to-Montgomery, Ala., civil rights march in 1965. They marched together and were jailed together.
Raiskin had suggested they wear yarmulkes.
“People asked us ‘What are those caps?’ And he said ‘They’re freedom caps,’ and before long, everyone wanted one,” Teitelbaum chuckled.
Raiskin was also involved in the Soviet Jewry movement, traveling to the Soviet Union to visit refuseniks.
He had a wry sense of humor, once describing the eternal light that first hung at his synagogue as “like a Chianti bottle with candle drippings.”
Cantor Barry Reich, who worked with Raiskin for the past 38 years, looked up to him as a mentor and role model.
“He was absolutely the greatest example that I’ve had in my life, next to my father,” said Reich.
Raiskin was predeceased by his wife, Helen, in 2004. In addition to his daughters Julee and Jordana, he is survived by son Sherman Spitz of Irvine, daughter Rhonda Spitz of West Hills, Calif., and seven grandchildren.
Donations can be made to the Rabbi Gerald and Helen Raiskin Torah Center at Peninsula Temple Sholom, 1655 Sebastian Drive, Burlingame, CA 94010.