Rabbi H. David Teitelbaum, revered as much for his commitment to his congregants and the Bay Area Jewish community as for his passionate social activism on national and international stages, died at age 94 on Monday.
The next day, about 150 people took part in a memorial service on Zoom in which the native San Franciscan was remembered for his participation in the U.S. civil rights movement, his advocacy on behalf of Soviet Jews and his love for Israel — but, above all, for his kindness and conviction that the true task of Judaism is to build community.
“His was a Judaism about belonging, about connectedness,” said Rabbi Nat Ezray of Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City, where Teitelbaum served for 38 years until “retiring” in 1995. “He taught us to be mensches by being one.”
As an example, Ezray recounted how a congregant called Teitelbaum in the middle of the night to inform him that her husband had died. The rabbi waited until dawn, but at 6:30 a.m. he knocked on her door. “He sat with the wife of the deceased on the couch for hours,” Ezray recalled. “No words, just being present. Hineni. Here I am. That was David. He knew what each person needed. His essence was his gentle kindness. That, to me, is his lasting legacy — along with the other accolades.”
After learning of Teitelbaum’s passing, historian Fred Rosenbaum said that he was struck by the rabbi’s consistent demonstrations of courage in defense of social justice. In March 1965, when Teitelbaum took part in the famous march to Montgomery with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, he famously spent a night locked up in a Selma, Alabama jail with other activists.
“This man really practiced what he preached,” Rosenbaum told J., noting that Teitelbaum was one of only a handful of congregational rabbis in the Bay Area to make the trip to Selma. “He showed the courage of his convictions. And I think it’s to the credit of Congregation Beth Jacob that most of the leadership backed him.”
“David was a thinker and a doer whose life represented a shining example of living Jewish values,” said Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director emeritus of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council. “From his outspoken support for Israel and Soviet Jews to his participation in the historic march at Selma, he led by example.”
He also spoke out against the Vietnam War and the Iraq War before those stances were popular, and took up issues such as mental health and criminal justice reform, Rosenbaum said.
Teitelbaum began his nearly four decades on the Beth Jacob bimah in 1957. Grace Rosenberg, a former Beth Jacob president, described him as “a pillar, not only of our synagogue and community, but of all the people whose lives he touched throughout the country and the world — and not only Jews, but humanity.”
Remembering how Teitelbaum invited the congregation’s teenagers to his home on Sundays for “fireside chats,” Rosenberg also acknowledged his impact on the larger Jewish community institutionally.
“He was a presence. Whatever was happening that was important, he was there. He put himself physically out there — and was admired for it.”
Teitelbaum received many accolades during his life, and many came from outside the Jewish community. For example, when marking Jewish Heritage Month in 2015, President Barack Obama praised Teitelbaum by name, describing how during that night in the Selma jail, he and his fellow rabbis had kept up their spirits by singing “Adon Olam” to the tune of “We Shall Overcome.”
“That in and of itself is a profound statement of faith and hope,” Obama said.
Born Herbert David Teitelbaum on May 14, 1926, the son of Yiddish-speaking Polish immigrants grew up in San Francisco’s heavily Jewish Fillmore District, and though he attended Central Hebrew School, he also was impacted by his neighborhood’s vibrant and diverse population.
“It was not like growing up Orthodox in New York’s Lower East Side,” Rosenbaum explained. “He had so much interaction with all kinds of people,” which is “why he was never tied in with an exclusively Orthodox viewpoint. He was always looking outward; he was not cloistered.”’
Teitelbaum received his rabbinical training at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where he was influenced by Reconstructionist thinker Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. At 25, he volunteered as an Army chaplain during the Korean War. Despite his initial enthusiasm in that role, he wrote “I still look back with a passionate hatred of war” in his 2015 memoir.
Early rabbinic postings in the South aroused his anger at the Jim Crow system and a desire to aid the civil rights movement. In 1976, he traveled to the Soviet Union with his wife, Robin, to meet with Soviet Jews and fight for their freedom to emigrate. The couple actively campaigned for Soviet Jewry well into the 1980s.
“In the United States, the Bay Area was the leader in that cause, and he was right out in front,” Rosenbaum said.
After becoming Beth Jacob’s rabbi emeritus in1995, Teitelbaum worked an additional 10 years as executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California. That’s when Kahn worked closely with him “and came to understand very quickly why he truly was beloved.”
Rosenbaum said Teitelbaum was the “ideal person” to lead the board “because he could relate to people with various beliefs across the Jewish spectrum. He was a zeitfigur, a German phrase that describes a person who is representative of his times, always where the action was but modeling the very best in leadership. But the thread that really runs through his career was his devotion to the Jewish people.”
Teitelbaum labored over his autobiography for several years after stepping down as the board’s chairman. “As a Mighty Stream: The Life of an American Rabbi” offers insights on historic events that colored his rabbinate, from the Yom Kippur War to 9/11. And he spells out his God concept, refined over decades of contemplation. It allows for a range of belief and disbelief.
“I don’t expect everyone to agree with everything I wrote,” he told J. upon the book’s publication in 2015. “But especially for people who have difficulty with religion, I hope what I wrote will help. There are different ways of being religious and spiritual, different ways of conceiving of God.”
In the book, Teitelbaum wrote, “I cannot believe in the traditional supernatural God who rewards and punishes us according to our deeds. Yet I respect people who may have that kind of faith. I believe in what is God-like or godly, the things that make for human fulfillment and help us live in a better world.”
On the last page, he concluded, “There is no heaven or hell. The only immortality, I believe, is the immortality of influence. Whatever kind of legacy you leave behind, lives after you die.”
Teitelbaum is survived by his wife, Robin; children Joshua (Jacqueline) and Adam (Shari); grandchildren Abbey Sarah, Noah David, Dena Avigail (Maor) Hadad, Revital (Yonatan) Englender and Ayalah; and great-grandchildren Lucie Hallel, Nuriel Shalom and Naomi Robin, born just a week before Teitelbaum’s death.
Memorial donations can be made to Beth Jacob’s Teitelbaum Family Education Fund at bethjacobrwc.org/donate. Use the drop-down menu to designate the fund.