Eulogy for Rabbi H. David Teitelbaum

A mighty oak has fallen and there is a space in the sky.

Rabbi Ezray’s eulogy for Rabbi David Teitelbaum

I am delivering this eulogy from the Bimah where for over 38 years, Rabbi David Teitelbaum inspired and taught.  He was an extraordinary orator and intellect, who crafted sermons and teachings that challenged the mind, touched the heart, shaped community and brought Judaism to life.  He was a truly a gadol –one of the great rabbis in our community and our times.. He was also a dear friend, beloved husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather.  It is comforting that week he died, another great grandchild Naomi Robin was welcomed in the world.  David had a rich and meaningful life.  He touched so many of us and will be missed.

I begin with a story that captures his gentle kindness – for that is what is sitting in my heart.  A congregant shared that his father died in the middle of the night.  At 6:30 in the morning David came to be with the family.  He tells of David sitting quietly on the couch with his mother – the deceased’s wife for hours and hours comforting her. No words – just presence.  That was David – gentle, quiet, present – knowing what each person needed.  He cared about each person so deeply and his legacy amongst family, friends, this congregation and the broader community is of a man whose love touched us. When you talk about David being a gadol – a great one – you start with his kind heart.

When we rebuilt this synagogue in 2011, we placed verses in key places. The one above the door leading into this room honors  David – it was a verse he loved and which captures his essence: Micah 6:8 –  Higid lecha adam mah tov, u’mah Adonai doresh mimcha: ki im asot mishpat, v’ahavat chesed v’hatzna’ah leket im elohecha God has told you, o human what is good – and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice, and to love goodness, and walk modestly with your God.  David embodied each clause in this sentence.

Where did this ethic come from? How did it develop?  David left us the gift of an autobiography As A Mighty Stream, The Life Of an American Rabbi, and a pamphlet called Living Legacy, where we learn his story through his own words.  David was born May 14, 1926 and was proud to share his birthday with the State of Israel, which was also born on May 14, 1948.  A piece of the justice and goodness David pursued came in his love of Israel that he passed on to his family and this community.

David was born and raised in San Francisco, in a Jewish neighborhood that has since disappeared – but he shared vivid descriptions of Jewish bakeries, kosher restaurants and the synagogue, Kol Yaakov, and school, Central Hebrew School where he first encountered the depth of Jewish life and study.  Rabbi Stolper taught the students to lead every service and read Torah.  He sang in the Boy’s Choir – which in fact sang at the dedication of a new synagogue in Menlo Park – Congregation Beth Jacob.  His experience in childhood instilled in David wrote the centrality of community.  He decided to become a rabbi – probably around the age of 14 or 15. In his words: “I didn’t think very much about God or religion. When people asked me why I wanted to become a rabbi, I would answer: “To help the Jewish people.”  Little did he know that years later he would be inspired by the founder of Reconstructionism Mordecai Kaplan who said, “Belonging is prior to believing.”  One way to read ahavat chesed – love goodness – is to treasure, create and nurture the community that binds and supports.

David’s parents, Jacob and Shirley Teitelbaum were from Poland.  His father died at age 35 of pneumonia when David was 2 and his sister Frances was 4.  Shirley was both mother and father and raised him.  David describes her as “strong-willed, independent and resourceful”.  Money was tight, but Shirley always invited people looking for a meal to come in and eat.  You see where David developed his menschlichkeit.

After graduating Lowell High School, he began college at UC Berkeley.  He soon transferred to the pre-rabbinic program at JTS, concurrently studying at NYU. Upon graduating, he began rabbinical school full-time at JTS. He would tell stories of the legendary scholars at the Seminary, but was particularly pulled to Kaplan.  He recalled Kaplan’s passionate concern with intellectual integrity.  He remembers Kaplan pounding on the desk and shouting: “NO, NO, NO. IT HAS TO MAKE SENSE.”  David’s intellect was sharpened and his theology refined.  He became a leader in the Reconstructionist movement of Kaplan which he taught to this community. For David, it was Torah and community that reveals God. Kaplan’s influence continues through what David built at Beth Jacob and resonates to this moment.

Upon graduating the Seminary in 1951 there was a terrible shortage of Jewish Chaplains as the Korean War – the Forgotten War – raged.  David signed up – he felt a deep sense of duty and was taken out of his comfort zone  In his words: “Here I was, 25 years old – and I had never been out of the country before.  Just imagine the stark contrast between Seminary life and life in the Korean War – ministering to soldiers of every conceivable background under war conditions.” In Korea he was on the go constantly – by plane, train and mostly by jeep. The back of his jeep read: ROUGH RIDIN’ RABBI.  He tells an amazing story of getting a tent and a Torah one High Holidays – with everything arriving just minutes before the service was to begin. David writes that Korea taught him the horrors of war as he visited and ministered to the wounded soldiers. Korea molded David as a person and as a rabbi. Listen to what he wrote about what he learned: “I still look back on those days with a passionate hatred of war – and with a deep sympathy for all who are compelled to engage in it.  I protested the Vietnam War – from the pulpit and on the streets. I opposed war in Iraq and wrote many letters to newspapers and magazines, protesting our going into Iraq and then urging that we withdraw as soon as possible.”  David – driven by la’asot mishpat – doing justice – devoted himself to peace; believing war was a last resort.

He came home and began pulpit life. But the most important development of his life was meeting his beloved Robin. When we think of David – it is of David and Robin – he writes: “During all the 38 years that I was at Beth Jacob, Robin’s support was indispensable. I don’t know how I would have persevered with her.  At synagogue, she was his partner – running a Children’s theater, organizing Chavurot, spearheading Sisterhood. In life, they were soulmates. He is what David wrote about Robin: “I admit that I was somewhat taken by Robin’s sparkling theatrical career. Bu more important for me was that she was ‘haimish’, unpretentious, down-to-earth, easy to be with.  And it didn’t hurt that she was beautiful and intelligent. What also brought us closer was that we enjoyed singing together.”  Robin – your life with David, Josh, Adam and each addition to the family was a beautiful song.

At Beth Jacob, David’s teaching, spirit, passion and vision infused the community with spirit.    He was before his times in many ways – embracing egalitarianism, pioneering adult Bnai Mitzvah, initiating Junior Congregation, creating cooperative programs between synagogues and being an activist in the community.  He and Cantor Hans Cohn were an amazing team for 31 years. He helped found Camp Arazim and the young people who grew up at CBJ and now are middle aged with their own children and grandchildren admired him, are inspired by him and hold him up as a hero.

David commitment to mishpat – justice embraced more than words from the pulpit, but courageous deeds.  David died on the 56th anniversary of the confrontation between protesters and police on the Edmund Pettrus Bridge.  After that confrontation, David answered the call of Martin Luther King Jr for clergy to join him in the civil rights struggle in Selma, Alabama.  David answered the call – believing Selma would be a crucial turning point – and indeed it was.  Listen to his words: “For the first time in my life, I actually experienced the deprivation and humiliation that was the lot of the Negro.  I was threatened, cursed at, spat upon, and jailed -they called it ‘protective custody.’”  Pictures on the news here showed David being taken off to detention – the family saw it – it was terrifying.  When David described the Shabbat service he helped lead in detention – it still brings chills.  David writes: “When it came to the Shema, there was such a strong, and beautiful chorus of voices, that I was convinced that at least half of the participants were Jews. What a moving experience! The closing hymn was Adon Olam, sung to the melody of We Shall Overcome.  Dr. King addressed the group when they arrived at Montgomery and said we are like the children of Israel – marching from bondage to freedom.” David saw his trip to Selma as part of the need to struggle valiantly to pursue justice.   Hold onto the image this Pesach and let memories of David’s loving deeds of kindness inspire.

David’s embrace of Doing Justice – aseh mishpat  and Loving Kindness – ahavat chesed defined his rabbinate.  He was an activist fighting for Soviet Jews, who at the time were held as virtual prisoners.  He lead a group to the city each week to protest at the Russian Embassy and in 1976, he and Robin went to the Soviet Union to see refuseniks and bring gifts.  It was another powerful series of stories of David and Robin living justice through their activism.

But as I think about David, I keep coming back to the last clause of the verse from Micah – v’hatzna’ah leket im elohecha – walk humbly with the Lord your God.  David was never about his own ego.  He was an extraordinary counselor because he listened attentively and with love.  He taught in a way that not only brought texts alive and made sure high level learning occurred at CBJ – he created a dynamic where people found their own voices and ideas.

When I came, he always supported me and developed bonds of love and respect.

In many ways that humility and strength allowed this community to survive the trauma of the synagogue burning to the ground on February 3, 1979.  As the community gathered the next morning, David stood on a step ladder and speaking through a megaphone said, “It is permitted to cry. We look at our beautiful synagogue, and we are permitted to cry. I want you to hold and to hug each other.  This is the warmth and support that counts now.  It’s not the building. It’s what it represents in our lives.  The parchments of the Torah may have gone up in flames, but the words go up to heaven.  They burned our Torahs, but they can’t take away our faith.” David held us together and – making sure not a service or program was curtailed or cancelled.  He helped turn grief into resolution.

CBJ thrived – it was and continues to be a place of learning, joy, meaning, connection.  It reflects David’s spirit.  So many of you have shared his lessons – they are etched on our soul.  So many have felt his love – it warms us.  We’ll hear later from his children, Josh and Adam who he loved so much and was so proud of. He love Jaqueline and Shari – you too were his beloved.  Read the ethical will he wrote them in his autobiography – what a gift to you. David especially reveled in his grandchildren – Dena and her husband Maor, Hadad, Rivital and her husband Yonatan, and Ayalah.  He would talk and talk about you – reveling, adoring and encouraging you.  He was so happy to be a great grandfather to Lucie, Nuriel and Naomi Robin – who we welcome into the world!

After retiring, David was the Rabbi’s Rabbi – heading the Northern California Board of Rabbis.  He created connections and gently guided.  He taught us to take care of ourselves, creating balance and not seeking to please everyone.  He would teach: “Learn to say: ‘I don’t know’ when that’s the case – and don’t hesitate to say ‘I can’t help you’ when that’s the case.  Be a good listener. Respect the person and the person’s feeling – even when you may disagree.  Study an issue carefully – don’t leap to judgment.

David taught us how to communicate with kindness, how to be in community with intention and how to live with holiness and to cherish our Judaism.  He taught us to be mentsches by modeling it.  David believed that the only immortality that exists is the immortality of influence – if that is that case – David has found immortality.  At a beloved man’s eulogy, David said, “A mighty oak has fallen and there is a space in the sky.”  We grieve at the space in the sky David filled.

Please add your own memories of Rabbi Teitelbaum HERE and read the J. Weekly obituary here.

Rabbi David Teitelbaum z"l
Remembered by Rabbi Nat Ezray