Rabbi Michael Barenbaum had never considered moving to California.
He and his wife had come west in 1977 for a rabbis’ convention and a little R & R. Before the week was out, at the urging of colleagues, he interviewed for the senior rabbi post at Congregation Rodef Sholom.
That was the start of a 37-year tenure as senior rabbi and rabbi emeritus at the San Rafael synagogue, and of a bond between Barenbaum and his community that would last a lifetime.
That life ended this week, when Barenbaum passed away May 29 due to complications from an infection. He was 76.
“He affected the people there,” said son Daniel Barenbaum. “Looking back, I see that was his greatest gift. He also had a vision for the type of community he wanted to create and what he wanted to temple to be.”
In terms of synagogue growth, Barenbaum delivered. When he started, Rodef Sholom membership totaled 250 families. When he retired 27 years later in July 2003, the number topped 1,000.
He also helped lead the 1991 transformation of the 11-acre San Rafael campus to include the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center and Brandeis Hillel Day School, both adjacent to Rodef Sholom.
Add to that his devotion to Israel, to fighting poverty and to interfaith cooperation, and Barenbaum became one of the Bay Area’s high-impact spiritual leaders.
“He was a tall, handsome guy who was very warm and generous with his time,” remembered Rodef Sholom Cantor David Margules. “On one hand he was very intellectual, and on the other he was just a very spiritual man who connected deeply with people and with God.”
A native of Chicago, Barenbaum graduated high school at 16, enrolled in the University of Chicago and later transferred to Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.
Before ordination, he took time off. He ran a theater. He taught at a Catholic school. He lived in London. But in the end, Barenbaum answered the call, returned to HUC and became a rabbi.
Around that time, while working at a Jewish summer camp, he met a fetching counselor from Montreal named Hannah Hecht. They fell in love, married and eventually moved to Brookline, Mass., where Barenbaum served in a leading Reform synagogue.
The growing Barenbaum family spent several happy years there before moving to San Rafael.
A friend since their days together at HUC, Rabbi Brian Lurie said he and Barenbaum grew close over 47 years of friendship. “Every place he went he was a celebrity,” Lurie noted. “He loved it because he loved people. He was the rabbi of Marin.”
Margules moved to Marin in 1991 to become Rodef Sholom’s cantor. In those first weeks, Margules had no car or home of his own. The Barenbaums insisted he stay with them. He calls Barenbaum a mentor.
“He was a charismatic guy who had a vision, an idea of how wonderful [the synagogue] could be,” he said. “He had a great presence on the bimah and never more than on the High Holy Days.”
Barenbaum believed the Jewish community had obligations beyond its borders. Interfaith outreach was important to him, and he made it a point to develop relationships with clergy in the neighborhood. In the 1990s he engaged in pulpit exchanges with area churches.
Barenbaum’s successor, Rabbi Stacy Friedman, said her mentor’s imprint “is on every facet of this community,” adding, “He built this community, brick by brick, deed by deed, word by word, one dream on top of the next — the JCC campus, hospice of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, the Marin campus of Brandeis Hillel Day School. Michael was a wise and brave leader, a mentor to so many, and he was a remarkable, amazing rabbi. And he loved being a rabbi.”
He also loved being a father to Daniel and Naomi. His son remembers his busy dad, dressed in a business suit, stealing away to attend soccer games.
“When I was a young kid my dad wasn’t around that much because of his obligations,” he recalled. “But he always came home for dinner. He worked hard to be there for us. He was very attuned to how we felt and helping us through whatever issues we might have.”
When he retired in June 2003, Barenbaum told his congregation, “I’m proud of our spirituality. I’m proud that we can address God without dogma. And I’m proud of the opportunities Rodef Sholom provides our community for worship and Jewish connections.”
In retirement, he continued to officiate at weddings and other lifecycle events. Mounting health issues began to take their toll, and the death of his wife three years ago was a blow. Nonetheless, said Lurie, “In the midst of pain and anguish this man found reasons to be hopeful and continue to live.”
One cherished dream was to publish a collection of High Holy Day sermons he gave over the years. That dream came true earlier this year with the publication of “Insights and Inspirations.”
In his last days, many came to visit and thank the rabbi. One was Lurie, who considered Barenbaum “one of my very best friends from the time he moved here until his death.”
Added Lurie, “If he liked you, the boundaries between friend, family and rabbi became blurred. Yes, he was the rabbi, but he became a friend.”
Rabbi Michael Barenbaum is survived by son Daniel Barenbaum of Mill Valley, daughter Naomi Leonard of Tiburon and five grandchildren. Donations may be made to the Rabbi Michael Barenbaum Endowment Fund at Congregation Rodef Sholom, 170 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael, CA 94903.