It’s Never Too Late To Begin: Remembering Rabbi Lawrence Raphael, z”l

March 19, 2019Aron Hirt-Manheimer

In 1996, in an effort to realize his vision of creating a literate and involved Reform Jewish community, then UAHC President Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie inaugurated the Department of Adult Jewish Growth and chose Rabbi Lawrence Raphael, formerly a dean at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), to serve as its founding director. At the end of his tenure at the Union in 2002, Rabbi Raphael became senior rabbi at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, CA.

Rabbi Raphael, z”l, died on March 17, 2019 at the age of 74. The following is excerpted from his conversation with Reform Judaism magazine editor Aron Hirt-Manheimer (Summer, 1998) on the blessings of lifelong Jewish learning.

There is a story told of Rabbi Akiba, who began his Jewish studies at age 40. Akiba would become a great scholar, sage, and a leader of the Jewish community in the first-second century Palestine. But when he started his studies, he knew so little that he had to begin his learning with the very first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and did so with his son. He then progressed through the study of Bible and rabbinic law.

In the course of his studies, he kept reflecting on his learning experiences by asking himself, “How does what I am learning impact my life, myself as a Jew?”

Rabbi Akiba’s learning model was to build his knowledge step-by-step. His discipline, his energy, and his interest in placing his learning into a real-life context is an example of the best in adult learning. Jews today are also searching for meaning and they are finding that the study of their tradition can transform their lives. That’s why I believe most Jews first find their way to Jewish learning after a trigger event – sometimes it is a sad one, like the loss of a loved one; sometimes it is a happy one, like a family celebration.

Many parents have said to me, “My child’s bar or bat mitzvah convinced me it was time for me to begin my studies.” Sometimes they feel embarrassed that their child knows more than they do, and they want to change that. Often, they wish to feel the sense of mastery that comes with the experience of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah.

Last year a woman described to me her experience of studying with her son. He was learning trope and she was studying the Hebrew alphabet. By the time her son became a bar mitzvah, she too could read and chant the blessings in the original Hebrew, giving her a tremendous sense of accomplishment and empowerment. She has since continued her Hebrew and general Jewish studies and become more involved with her synagogue.

Serious Jewish study also leads to new actions and helps people move from isolation to  intimacy. When you study texts that address issues of relationships, of intergenerational conflicts, and the ultimate questions of life’s meaning, the experience always changes you.

Despite the secularity of our age, despite the high rates of assimilation, we are living at a time of religious search. It is clear to me that Jews care about this search, and therefore it is central to the quest that we nurture their Jewish journeys.

We also recognize that the process by which individuals come to know, value, appreciate, and even love their own tradition is often elusive, mysterious, and more complex than any of us may suggest.

We each have a story to tell about our life. Judaism offers us a path to study who we are, where we came from, our unique destiny, and our relationship with God.

Through study, we will help build a legacy that will endure.

Rabbi Neal Gold has written another remembrance of Rabbi Larry Raphael, “Remembering Rabbi Larry Raphael, z”l, and His Torah of Kindness.”

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