As a child in prewar Berlin, Theodore Alexander eschewed the rowdy games of his friends. He preferred to play shul, lining up chairs like pews and draping towels over playmates’ shoulders, as if he were wrapping them in prayer shawls.
Even then, Ted Alexander seemed destined to become a rabbi.
The son of a rabbi, a Holocaust refugee and a fixture in the Bay Area Jewish community, Alexander became one of the region’s most beloved pulpit rabbis, having served at San Francisco’s Congregation B’nai Emunah for nearly four decades.
He died Oct. 4 at his Danville home at the age of 95.
His colleagues greatly admired him, among them Daniel Pressman, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth David in Saratoga, who said in his eulogy, “Rabbi Ted, as his flock came to call him, was always progressive, a pioneer in rights for women and for welcoming Jews into the community.”
Born in Berlin in 1920, Alexander enjoyed a peaceful, prosperous life with his family until the rise of Hitler. That changed as Nazi persecution of Jews took hold, culminating Nov. 6, 1938, on Kristallnacht, when state-sanctioned mobs destroyed synagogues and looted Jewish-owned businesses.
Alexander was returning from school that evening when he saw a synagogue on fire. He and his father ran to their shul, which also had been torched. They managed to save a tallit and a Torah scroll.
Both items made it all the way to California and are still in the family’s possession. Alexander’s granddaughter was married last year under a chuppah canopy made from the rescued tallit.
“My dad’s philosophy was that those days are meaningful, but we shouldn’t wallow in them,” said his daughter, Rabbi Leslie Alexander of Beth David. “They can serve as a guide and impetus for new generations of Jews to choose to live vibrant Jewish lives.”
Not long after Kristallnacht, the Alexander family made the prescient decision to leave Germany. They booked passage for Shanghai, which became a haven for thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler.
The family stayed in China for nearly a decade, riding out poverty and a brutal Japanese occupation. In addition to his family surviving, Alexander experienced more good fortune in Shanghai. He continued his studies at a rabbinical school established there, and was ordained as a rabbi. He also met the love of his life, Gertrude Langer, whom he would marry and be with for 70 years.
In 1946, both families emigrated to the United States, settling in Walnut Creek. The couple had one daughter, Leslie. Alexander found work as a part-time rabbi and as a traveling salesman.
For Alexander, family always came first.
“My mom and I would be likely to receive flowers on any given day,” recalled Leslie. “My mother got breakfast in bed every morning of her married life. I would wake up as a teenager to my father holding a cup of coffee or chocolate.”
In time, he served as full-time rabbi at Walnut Creek’s Congregation B’nai Shalom, and in 1968 he came to B’nai Emunah, founded after the war by Holocaust survivors and refugees from Shanghai just like him.
Alexander did not wallow in the past. He ended the B’nai Emunah tradition of doing some services in German. His welcoming nature extended to all, including gays and lesbians. He helped found Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco, a predominantly LGBT synagogue, and championed gay marriage years before it was legal.
At B’nai Emunah, Alexander was beloved by congregants and colleagues. Cantor Linda Semi met him when she joined the staff in the early 1990s. She said her mentor was a people person, adding, “Interacting with and engaging others was the essence of his being. He never gave a sermon from the pulpit, except on High Holy Days, but always walked among his congregants to make his points.”
In addition, Alexander had a rare talent for persuading people to convert to Judaism. By his daughter’s account, Alexander brought in hundreds of Jews by choice, thanks to his intro to Judaism classes, many of which he taught at the Berkeley-based Lehrhaus Judaica.
When his daughter made the decision to become a rabbi, Alexander had some sage advice, warning her that for some, “rabbi” becomes their first name. “He said be careful and don’t do that,” she recalled. “You have this life right now. It’s your life. Be a rabbi because you want it, but be Leslie.”
His reputation spread beyond the Bay Area. Rabbi William Lebeau, senior consultant for rabbinic leadership for the New York-based Rabbinic Assembly (the rabbinic arm of the Conservative movement) got to know Alexander at regular trainings the R.A. held for rabbis.
“In everything I saw about him, his warmth, his sincerity, he seemed to be able to relate to people who came from all different directions, and not to be critical or judgmental,” Lebeau said. “He was accepting and caring.”
He officially retired in 2005 but continued to attend services, as well as occasionally lead them. He and Gertrude also loved spending time with their two granddaughters, Shira and Aliza. Health problems mounted but he remained upbeat to the end.
“What characterized his rabbinate are the same things that characterized his life,” said his daughter. “Be yourself, love people, try to figure out who they are and connect with them. Teach them the joys of Jewish life and the incomparable community they can gain.”
Rabbi Ted Alexander is survived by his wife, Getrude Alexander of Danville; sister Gerda Abramchik of Chicago; daughter Leslie Alexander of Los Gatos and two grandchildren.