As second acts go, it’s hard to top Rabbi Lawrence Raphael’s 2003 decision to exchange a 30-year career in academia for the bimah of Congregation Sherith Israel.
After 13 years as senior rabbi, the 70-year-old Raphael will step down at the end of June and Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf, current director of Magalim (Sherith Israel’s community-building efforts), will take his place. The San Francisco Reform synagogue will honor Raphael with a weekend of events and tributes starting Friday, May 20.
“I thought this would be an opportunity to do things other than be the rabbi at Sherith Israel,” Raphael said. “The congregation would be better served by someone who has the youth and capacity to imagine what should be here 10 years from now.”
Raphael’s friends, congregants and colleagues are taking stock of a successful tenure at one of San Francisco’s oldest synagogues.
“His impact has been huge,” Graf said. “He’s been a wonderful leader in cultivating leadership in the congregation. He has built up a group of strong, dynamic, thoughtful and committed lay leaders engaged in all aspects of the work of the congregation.”
Doug Kahn, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, has known Raphael since he was a camper at Camp Swig and Raphael was his counselor.
“During his tenure I’ve watched this man who helped guide countess aspiring rabbis demonstrate so many fine qualities of the rabbinate,” Kahn wrote in a public letter. “He is a people person who treats colleagues and congregants with equal respect.”
Raphael’s list of accomplishments is topped by something not visibly apparent: securing the $16 million seismic retrofit of the synagogue, including its 111-year-old sanctuary and dome. It was a daunting project.
“Before I even applied, that was something I knew would be a necessary part of being the rabbi here,” Raphael said. “We started the second and last phase, and we still have money to raise for it, but all the city-mandated requirements will be met in this second phase of construction. It’s been time-consuming but rewarding.”
He also cites his effort to help Jews-by-choice through the conversion process. Not only does the congregation offer Introduction to Judaism classes, Raphael meets with students one on one and pairs them with congregant mentors who further the process. Raphael estimates more than 50 people have gone through the program.
Raphael’s other rabbinic colleague, Rabbi Julie Saxe Taller, started at Sherith Israel around the same time he did. She calls him a mentor, someone who gave her the leeway she needed to try new things at the congregation.
“He always said yes,” she noted. “One thing that stands out, he always asks about people, and when he gets to know somebody he wahts to know their stories. He’s really good, person to person.”
Raphael also has made an impact as a board member of the San Francisco Interfaith Council.
“He asks all the right questions,” council director Michael Pappas said. “When you’re on a nonprofit board you work with limited resources, so you really need to engage your board to realize your potential. He’s been the model board member. In addition, he’s become a friend.”
A Los Angeles native, Raphael served for 30 years as a faculty member and dean at Hebrew Union College in New York and as director of the department of Adult Jewish Growth for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism). When the opportunity arose for Raphael and his wife, Terrie, to return to their home state, they jumped at it.
Like many in his position, Raphael is retiring in name only. He plans to continue teaching at the Fromm Institute and elsewhere, and will remain on the board of the Interfaith Council. He also hopes to work as a hospice chaplain through the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center.
As much work as he put into saving Sherith Israel’s building, he is most grateful for his work with congregants.
“It’s a very haimish place,” he says, “a very unpretentious place with friendly, warm people, many of whom want to be sincerely involved in their Jewish journey. I’ve tried to help create a community of meaning here, and have been blessed with many people who want to find that for themselves.”