Rabbi Samuel Graudenz, Pied Piper of congregation, dies

Officially, Rabbi Samuel Graudenz retired many years ago. But for a man who lived to teach Torah, there was no such thing as retirement. Even into old age, fighting blindness and dementia, Graudenz found ways to inspire others.

And when he died in San Francisco on Friday, Oct. 6, just shy of his 90th birthday, a bright light of Judaism reluctantly blinked out.

“Any opportunity to teach, he taught,” said his daughter Debbie Graudenz, disability services coordinator at Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the Greater East Bay. “He worked so hard, did so many amazing things and touched people in ways I don’t even know.”

“He was a scholar in every aspect of the word,” added Gale Orland, a longtime member of Modesto’s Congregation Beth Shalom, where Graudenz served as rabbi for 31 years. “Most of what I learned about Judaism came from him. He could put a spin on things no one ever thought of.”

Over those three decades Graudenz certainly had an impact on the Jewish community of the Central Valley. But the German-born rabbi represented far more: He was a living witness to much of 20th-century Jewish history.

Born in Cologne, Germany, in 1916, Graudenz grew up in Orthodox orphanages because his parents were too poor to support their children. From an early age he showed a gift for Torah and Talmud, becoming ordained at Poland’s Meir Yeshiva at the age of 21.

His return to Germany was short-lived. As the Nazi juggernaut swept over Germany, all Poles and Germans of Polish extraction were forcibly deported to Poland. From there Graudenz escaped to Lithuania, while the rest of his family perished in the Holocaust.

In Vilnius, Graudenz’ life was saved by Chiune Sugihara, Japan’s consul general in Lithuania. Sugihara issued thousands of transit visas to Jews clamoring for escape. Once safely on his way east, Graudenz made his way to Vladivostok and then to Shanghai, where he, along with thousands of European Jewish refugees, rode out the war years.

At the end of 1946, he met Eva Ruth Damm, another German refugee, who became his wife. The couple arrived in San Francisco the following year via U.S. troop transport, and soon afterward Graudenz landed a job as principal of Seattle Hebrew Day School.

The couple had four children, and the family lived in Seattle until 1963, when Graudenz was named principal of Modern Hebrew Day School at Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham. The following year he became director of education at Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco. In 1968, Graudenz packed up the family and moved to Modesto, where he became spiritual leader of Conservative Congregation Beth Shalom.

“I was his first secretary,” recalled Orland. “He and Eva were close personal friends. My kids called him their third grandfather. With the [congregation’s] kids he was the Pied Piper. They would follow him anywhere.”

Debbie Graudenz remembers that her father rarely had down time, which is exactly how he liked it. “Most rabbis have Monday off,” she said. “But on his day off he worked as a chaplain at Deuel Vocational Institute, a medium-security prison in Tracy. He created a Jewish community there, teaching Hebrew, liturgy and Judaism. His goal was to help his guys reconnect with regular society.”

After retiring from Beth Shalom, the rabbi expanded his prison chaplaincy, serving at the Stockton Women’s Facility and Sierra Conservation Center until macular degeneration robbed him of his eyesight.

In 1996, Graudenz lost his beloved wife of 50 years. For the last few years, he lived at Rhoda Goldman Plaza in San Francisco. Whenever he could, he would still attend services at Beth Sholom, and try to teach the lessons of Torah.

Even when dementia began to rob him of his faculties, Graudenz participated in Jewish life, not long ago attending his grandson’s bar mitzvah at Berkeley’s Netivot Shalom. But last April he broke his hip, and most recently, a short battle with pneumonia took his life.

Those close to him say Graudenz’s legacy will be easy to track. “He raised a bunch of Jewish kids,” said Orland, referring to the many congregants he influenced. “He was very well loved by many people.”

Rabbi Samuel Graudenz is survived by his son, Jack Graudenz of Israel; daughters Debbie Graudenz of Oakland and Judi Gabia of Granite Bay; and several grandchildren.

Dan Pine

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