Sinai Memorial Chapel Sinai Memorial Chapel Locations Home
Upcoming
and Recent Services

Morris Aaron Wexler
October 10, 2018

Archive


Funeral for Rabbi Theodore Alexander

Memorial Image
Funeral: 11:00 AM Thursday, October 6th, 2016
Congregation B'nai Emunah
3595 Tavaral Street
San Francisco, CA
directions
Interment: 1:30 PM Thursday, October 6th, 2016
Salem Memorial Park
1171 El Camino Real
Colma, CA 94014
directions

‘Rabbi Ted’ Alexander, inclusive religious leader, dies

By Nanette Asimov Friday, October 7, 2016

Rabbi Theodore Alexander, a survivor of Kristallnacht who became an advocate for civil rights and led a San Francisco congregation for nearly 40 years, died Tuesday at his home in Danville. He was 95.

In his decades leading Congregation B’Nai Emunah in a windy corner of San Francisco’s Outer Sunset, Rabbi Ted, as he was known, welcomed not only Jewish refugees of Nazi Germany like himself and Gertrude, his wife of 70 years, but people of color, gays, non­Jews and converts — all in an era when such inclusiveness was uncommon. He spoke out for same­sex marriage years before it became legal and helped found gay­centered Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in 1977. And for years, he taught classes in basic Judaism, often to Jews who knew little of their own religion.

“He was one of the early voices saying our community is a big enough tent that we can welcome people of all backgrounds,” said Frank Kurtz, a friend and former congregation president. “He got this idea of diversity long before it became a catchword. He was a feminist from way back.”

Born in Berlin on Nov. 6, 1920, Rabbi Alexander entered an enlightened world of intellectuals and Jewish culture. His parents were Kathe and Hugo Alexander, also a rabbi. Albert Einstein played the violin at the family synagogue. In 1935, a family friend, Regina Jonas, became the first woman ordained as a rabbi. He was 18 in 1938, and on a streetcar, when he got word that he should not go home. The Nazis were on a deadly rampage breaking windows and burning Jewish­owned businesses and synagogues, vandalizing homes and arresting or killing Jewish men. The infamous “Night of Broken Glass,” or Kristallnacht, had begun. Afterward, Kathe Alexander announced that the family must leave, and in 1939, the Alexanders sailed to Shanghai.

“My parents met in Shanghai,” said Rabbi Alexander’s daughter, Leslie Alexander, who in 1983 became the first female rabbi to lead a major Conservative synagogue. In Shanghai they found a thriving community of Jewish refugees. Rabbi Ted Alexander was ordained, but got a job with Sassoon, a banking company. Then, in 1943, the Japanese arrived and forced the Jews into a ghetto. “You could be sent to prison for the slightest offense, like not bowing low enough to a soldier,” Rabbi Alexander told the San Francisco Examiner in 1997. After liberation, Rabbi Alexander and Gertrude Langer married in 1946, and sailed to San Francisco a year later. “They were just lovebirds” for seven decades, Leslie Alexander said. “They enjoyed what my mother describes as a marvelous life.” Gertrude Alexander encouraged her husband to become a rabbi full time, a choice he never regretted. “He was totally dedicated to Conservative Judaism, and everything about the movement,” Leslie Alexander said. But he never pushed anyone. His love of Judaism simply rubbed off on people — including, once, on a Catholic teenager named Cyndie Culpeper. Culpeper was 15 in 1978 when she visited Rabbi Alexander for her class in comparative religion at San Francisco’s Mercy High School. She returned again and again, finally asking: “How do I become Jewish?” She became a rabbi. But along the way, as a nurse at San Francisco General Hospital, a needle stick infected her with HIV in 1994, and she then developed AIDS. Rabbi Alexander helped her practice telling her congregation — in Alabama — about her illness. He and an AIDS educator traveled there to be with her when she disclosed the news. “I don’t believe there was ever a more wonderful, open, welcoming person, a more loving person anywhere,” Leslie Alexander said of her father.

In addition to his wife, Gertrude, of Danville, Rabbi Alexander is survived by a sister, Gerda Abramchik of Chicago; daughter Leslie Alexander and son­in­law Dr. Ken Aitchison of Los Gatos; granddaughter Shira Aitchison and her husband Justin Hellman of Los Angeles; granddaughter Aliza Aitchison of New York; nephew Elhanan Abramchik of Florida; nephew Joe Abramchik and his wife Elka Abramchick of Chicago; and nephew David Abramchik of New York. A funeral service will be at 11 a.m. Thursday at Congregation B’nai Emunah. 3595 Taraval St., San Francisco. Services under the auspices of Sinai Memorial Chapel Chevra Kadisha.

Nanette Asimov is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.

Email: nasimov@sfchronicle.com