Hundreds fete retiring Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

By Donald H. Harrison

Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

SAN DIEGO – Congregants, rabbis, representatives of Jewish agencies and organizations, staff, family, and friends feted Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal on Saturday evening, Feb. 4, to mark his retirement after 29 years service to Tifereth Israel Synagogue and the community.

A catered dinner for several hundred in the Conservative congregation’s social hall was the scene of tributes, some good-natured teasing about Rosenthal’s accordion playing, and much schmoozing.

A havdalah service preceded the dinner. It was led by members of Rabbi Rosenthal’s family as well as by Rabbi Nadav Caine of Ner Tamid Synagogue of Poway, Rabbi Ralph Dalin, the San Diego community chaplain, and Rabbi Devorah Marcus of Temple Emanu-El.  Congregant Ted Stern accompanied the singing on guitar. Next came the blessing over the bread (Ha Motzi) led by the rabbi’s six grandchildren – Neriya, Zecharya, Michal, Esther, Elijah and Zev.

Emceed by past presidents and dinner co-chairs Leslie Bercovitz, Seth Krosner, and Marla Lobenstein, the tributes began with the congregation’s current president, Jerry Hermes, setting a light-hearted tone with the comment that Rosenthal’s “size 8 ½ shoes are going to be difficult to fill.”  In the next few weeks, two rabbis will be delivering guests sermons to the congregation, in what might be described as rabbinical auditions.

Retired Rabbi Martin Lawson, spiritual leader emeritus of nearby Reform Temple Emanu-El, followed Hermes to the microphone with an opening that has marked many a religious joke.  “A minister, a priest and a rabbi “ walked around Lake Murray, he began.  The minister and priest were in their clerical garb, but the rabbi – that is, Rosenthal – was wearing a red chili pepper shirt, a fedora, and was playing Oseh Shalom on his accordion.

Such is the image many visitors to Lake Murray (one of several City of San Diego reservoirs) might have of Rabbi Rosenthal, who likes to dress with a flair for  the Tashlich services that he and Lawson  have co-officiated annually for many years.

Lawson went on to praise Rosenthal’s “amazing ability” to elucidate complex issues, to deliver “well-crafted” sermons, and to serve as a teacher not only to congregants but to fellow members of the San Diego rabbinate.  In illustration of Rosenthal’s impact upon him, Lawson then reached into the podium and pulled out a red shirt and fedora, which he proceeded to wear for part of the evening.

Along with accordion references, shirts were a sub-theme of Rosenthal’s retirement weekend.  At a dinner following Friday night Shabbat services, Bill Sperling, president of the congregation’s Men’s Club, had told of Rabbi Rosenthal hiking up Cowles Mountain with a group of doctors and Chabad Rabbi Rafi Andrusier. The first time he went, Rabbi Rosenthal had complained several time about the length of the uphill walk, but on each successive hike he complained fewer times. Sperling thereupon presented Rosenthal with a t-shirt with the Yiddish word “kvetching” circled and slashed in red to indicate complaining was no longer allowed or necessary.

A salmon and vegetable buffet prepared by In Good Taste Catering and popular music performed by the J-Dog Players provided an intermission between the speeches and an opportunity for guests to examine individual centerpieces illustrating aspects of Rabbi Rosenthal’s life.  At our table was a school bus with Camp Ramah spelled out in Scrabble tiles, indicating Rosenthal’s ongoing role as a teacher/ counselor/ rabbi at the camp run by Judaism’s Conservative movement.  At another table was a violin, noting that the musical rabbi has played violin in the Tifereth Israel Community Orchestra conducted by David Amos.  Elsewhere, there was the figure of Moses, indicating that Rosenthal also is a great leader and teacher.  These and many other centerpieces were created by The Art Safari.

Marjory Kaplan, the retired long-time leader of the Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego, came with greetings not only from her former organization but from the leaders of other important Jewish agencies.  She included in her speech a quote from a leader of each organization telling how Rosenthal had aided their causes.  For example, the Anti Defamation League’s Tammy Gilles praised him for his willingness to participate in interfaith meetings and seminars for the law enforcement community.  Michael Cohen of the Lawrence Family JCC lauded Rosenthal for regularly teaching at adult Jewish learning programs.  Pam Ferris said the rabbi regularly visits senior residents at Seacrest Village Retirement Community. Michael Hopkins noted that Rosenthal has often played his famed accordion at senior centers run by Jewish Family Service.   Rosenthal won similar plaudits from Hillel and the Jewish Community Foundation for his ongoing commitment to the Jewish community.

Next came tributes from the staff, including Preschool Director Amy Stanley who said Rosenthal “gave me the space to do things my way.  He’s a leader, not a boss.”

Youth Director Micah Klareich spoke about Rosenthal as both a leader and an uncle, who “allowed me to transcend my childish naïve concept of Judaism.”  Klareich is the son of Tifereth Israel’s Program Director Beth Klareich, who is the sister-in-law of the rabbi.  She had preceded Rosenthal to the staff of Tifereth Israel Synagogue, and recalled that when the opportunity arose for him to interview to become an associate rabbi under the congregation’s then leader, Rabbi Aaron Gold, z”l, Rosenthal checked with her first to make sure such an arrangement wouldn’t cause her discomfort.  Beth (Feigelson) Klareich’s sister, Judy (Feigelson) Rosenthal, has been married to Rabbi Rosenthal for 41 years.

The synagogue’s administrator, Lori Kurtz, told of joining the staff with no previous professional experience in the religious realm, but figuring that as she had run doctor’s offices for most of her career, she was ready for almost anything else.  Like many Jewish congregations, Tifereth Israel Synagogue boasts numerous doctors among its congregants, and Kurtz’s line got an appreciative and knowing laugh – especially from the doctors’ spouses.

Rabbi Rosenthal’s three children – Adam, who also has been ordained as a rabbi; Adina, an attorney in New York; and Margalit, who serves as a vice president of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles – came up to the microphone together, but it was Margalit who spoke for all of them.

She said their father’s character, moral responsibility and goodness were inspirational for the three of them, and while his job dominated his life, he made it a point to come to make their lunches every day and to come to as many of their school events as possible.

Furthermore, she said, with a smile, their father “is hilarious – especially to himself.”

Rabbi Michael Gotlieb of Kehillat Ma’arav of Santa Monica, told of being a confirmation student of Rabbi Rosenthal’s at Congregation Beth Tefilah in San Diego, which long since has merged into Ohr Shalom Synagogue.  Serving in that congregation as a tutor under Rabbi Samuel Penner, z”l, Rosenthal was well-remembered by his students for playing the accordion, which may not then have fit the prevailing standards of “cool.”

Accordion or not, Rosenthal was an “extraordinary teacher,” said Gotlieb.  “His love and commitment influenced my decision to become a rabbi.”  Even today, he added, if he has a question about Jewish law (halacha), he consults with Rabbi Rosenthal.

At last, it was time for Rosenthal to respond, which he did with thank you’s to many of the congregants and staff with whom he had worked so closely over his nearly three-decade long tenure.  He pronounced himself rendered nearly speechless by “all the people who shared such beautiful tributes, knowing how I touched your lives.”  He paid tribute to his wife for taking up the slack when rabbinical duties over the years pulled him away from family time.

Acknowledging the accordion jokes, the rabbi said the instrument had served a practical purpose as his children were growing up.  If they became too unruly in their play, he said, he would warn them, “stop, or I’m taking my accordion out.”

Rabbi Rosenthal singled out the widow of Rabbi Gold – Jeanne Gold, who was in the audience – and said that her husband had been his teacher and a great help to him as he advanced to the position of senior rabbi.  He added: “Rabbi Gold was the kind of emeritus for me that I’d like to be for my successor!”


Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  He may be contacted via [email protected]

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