A few months into his tenure at Temple Isaiah, Rabbi Roberto Graetz still had yet to meet one-on-one with many congregants of the large Reform synagogue in Lafayette.
Then came the 1991 Oakland fire that killed 25 people and incinerated more than 3,000 homes.
“Coming out of religious school my daughter said to me, ‘Look at the clouds,’” Graetz recalled of that October morning. “I looked over and said, ‘That’s smoke.’ By the time I got home, I was calling all our Oakland and Berkeley congregants. That made an impact. This was my breaking in.”
That tragedy, which destroyed the homes of several Isaiah congregants, sealed a relationship that stood the test of time. Over a quarter-century, Graetz became one of the East Bay’s leading religious figures and social justice activists.
Now, at 70, Graetz is set to retire. He will go out with a weekend of celebrations, starting with Kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday, May 13.
“I made the decision about a year and a half ago,” Graetz said. “The idea was that I could go out in full use of my capacities and the congregation would have a chance to really think through how they wanted to move forward.”
That matter is settled, as co-rabbi Judy Shanks becomes Temple Isaiah’s sole senior rabbi. A new associate rabbi, Jay LeVine, joins the staff in July.
“We really have been a team for 24 years,” said Shanks, who joined the staff a year after Graetz. “I am deeply appreciative of his friendship, his openness to moving in new directions, his open door to the thousands of conversations we had about every aspect of congregational life.”
Former synagogue president Daniel Greenberg, a member of Temple Isaiah for 60 years, remembers when Graetz took over for Rabbi Shelley Waldenberg, who had been senior rabbi since 1972.
“We knew we had a scholar,” he said. “He was well versed in Judaism and very active in social justice. He challenged the congregation to help with housing for the homeless.”
Graetz made Shanks co-rabbi, bucking the convention of having one senior rabbi at the top.
“We didn’t try to outshine one another,” she said. “It wasn’t about ego. It was never about him. It was always about the Jewish people, the world, the congregation and the person he was talking with.”
Graetz spent the first 20 years of his rabbinate in his native Buenos Aires and, later, Rio de Janeiro. He served as Latin American director for the World Union for Progressive Judaism, lobbied on behalf of Rio’s street children and rallied against Argentina’s military junta.
He moved to the United States in 1990. In addition to changing the culture to one more cooperative and egalitarian, he led Temple Isaiah into new spheres of social justice work.
In 1994, he co-founded Contra Costa Interfaith Housing, which converted a 28-apartment unit in Pleasant Hill to a shelter and supported low-income housing projects in Pittsburg and Antioch. Graetz helped launch the Multi-Faith Action Coalition, which works on prison reform, education, hunger and housing.
One partner is Rev. Fred Weidmann, senior minister of Hillcrest Congregational Church in Pleasant Hill. In four years working with Graetz, he said he has come to “love him as a friend and colleague.”
It started with Graetz addressing churchgoers as part of a series on faith. “We wanted to dig deeper into what each religion brings to a global ethic, and he reminded us that Judaism is a living tradition,” Weidmann said. “He won over my congregation. They were ready to pitch me and hire him.”
Why retire now? Two of Graetz’s three grown daughters live outside the Bay Area. “My grandkids are growing up and I don’t have a lot of time to spend,” he said. “That was a big thing, to catch the kids while they were little.”
Like many retiring rabbis, Graetz will stay away from Temple Isaiah for several months to give his successors and his congregants time to adjust to the new normal. But he lives in Walnut Creek and hopes to continue making Isaiah his spiritual home.
“It’s a balancing act,” he said of fitting in as a rabbi emeritus. “When I come back, that’ll be the time to figure it out. I would love to do some adult teaching on my schedule. I will continue to have my own worship life, and I hope it will be at Isaiah.”