I lost my friend Larry Raphael last Sunday. I’m writing about Larry because he deserves it—and I need to.

Larry became Congregation Sherith Israel’s senior rabbi in July 2003 after three decades at Hebrew Union College in New York. It was his first pulpit. He was ready. A dedicated and accomplished teacher, Larry immediately led Torah Study Saturday mornings before services. Several friends and I were regulars. We loved it. A bond formed. After a while, Larry asked me to lead the group when he had to be away. I was honored.

Larry taught evening courses about various subjects. The classes were great, including those on one of his passions, Jewish mystery and detective stories. He’d edited two volumes. Larry never displayed an ego and encouraged everyone’s opinions. 

Occasionally, Larry joined some of us for dinner before class or for lunch after teaching Talmud downtown—another great success. Discussions covered many topics, including baseball—another passion (he also loved photography). The two of us started going to lunch and did so monthly after he retired in 2016. Occasionally, we’d go to a Giants game. When he left his seat, I filled in his scorecard. 

Larry was a private person and I’m an introvert, but we shared stories—he loved stories—about our families, congregations he served part-time in retirement, my writing. He related travels in Europe, Israel and Guatemala, as well as living in Brooklyn—we had a mutual friend there—and growing up in Los Angeles. I detailed growing up in Queens, army service, Texas, travels in Europe and Asia, and caught him up on Carolyn and our kids.

Larry wrote a column for the Sherith Israel newsletter, which I co-edited. When he was busy, including fundraising for our successful $16 million seismic retrofit, I’d suggest ideas and write first drafts. “I couldn’t have written it better myself,” he’d say. “But you did,” I’d answer. “I’m only channeling you since you taught this idea and we talked about it.” Larry’s trust meant so much to me.

At my request, Larry wrote a blurb for the cover of my 2009 book, God’s Others: Non-Israelites’ Encounters With God in the Hebrew Bible. I’m not a rabbi or academic, but Larry read some of the manuscript and responded, “Great. What would you like me to say?” 

Let me get one thing straight. Although soft-spoken, Larry was nobody’s fool. He could get angry with those who acted badly. But he was incredibly welcoming to everyone who came to Sherith Israel and people he met elsewhere. He also was a wizard at remembering names. (I’m terrible at it.) He could have created a memory act for Las Vegas. 

Larry spent most of the last three-plus months in the hospital and rehab facilities, so we chatted periodically on the phone. He gave me some details on his illness, but I emphasized my calls as “Hi, we’re all thinking of you” moments. We hoped to have one last get-together. It didn’t work out. 

I don’t regret not having a final in-person goodbye. The end of a life doesn’t define a person or a friendship. What counts is all that takes place in the years before. Larry inspired so many students—rabbinical and lay—congregants, more than 50 converts, and me. His memory is a blessing. 

To respond, click on “comments” to the right just below the title of this post. Then go to the response space at the bottom of the post.


  1. Martin P Sherman on March 22, 2019 at 5:42 pm

    Beautifully written. I remember many Saturdays at Torah study with Rabbi Larry. He was a gentle and wise soul. Marty

    • David on March 22, 2019 at 6:09 pm

      Indeed, Marty. He touched so many lives.

  2. David Newman on March 22, 2019 at 5:57 pm

    Thanks, David, for sharing your thoughts. My mind has been churning ever since I knew that Larry was close to death. For one thing, Larry was exactly my age, and the thought of my friends going mortal is disturbing. Because there were so many parallels between Ellen’s and my life and Larry’s, we always thought of him as “our rabbi.”

    Beyond that, I treasured the chance to work closely with him over the years. The fact that we finished the retrofit and the fundraising is in large part a tribute to his commitment. Meeting with him in small groups or one-on-one, I saw more of Larry’s range than he displayed in public — his warmth and compassion, balanced by his impatience for moving the task along and his occasionally snarky annoyance when he thought people weren’t living up to what was required of them.

    Knowing Larry enriched our lives enormously, and the world is a better place for his having been part of it. To Larry, that would have been the measure of a life well lived.

    • David on March 22, 2019 at 6:08 pm

      Well said, David. I’d say that Larry is a great loss, but those we love stay with us.

  3. Bruce Abramson on March 22, 2019 at 6:08 pm


    Thanks so much for your heartfelt memories. I regret that Larry and I did not really keep in touch once I left SF several years ago. I had no idea he was ill, and I am deeply saddened to hear of his passing. He was great and fun as a teacher. I thoroughly enjoyed every class I took with him–and I made some good friends among his other students!


    • David on March 24, 2019 at 3:55 pm

      Thanks, Bruce. We met through Torah Study, and having you as a friend—long distance now, for sure—means a lot.

  4. Tamar Draper Mahru on March 22, 2019 at 6:14 pm

    Larry is forever in my heart, as “my first” Rabbi, as the officiant of my wedding just a year ago (it was so special to have him there and we were honored that he said yes), and as a person who very quickly during a difficult time in my life was a wonderful source of solace.

    While he did remember names, he was even more remarkable at remembering family members, facts about people since the last time he was updated – it was an incredible thing. That’s how he made you feel welcome. I enjoyed his smile upon greeting, because his eyes lit up too. And his holding my shoulders as if to say, “Let me get a good look at you!”

    Larry was with me during my last two important life changes: marriage and my conversion. He has made a mark on my adult life that I will never forget, and am comforted by having had the pleasure of that time with him.

    • David on March 22, 2019 at 7:02 pm

      No one could say it better, Tamar.

  5. Valerie on March 22, 2019 at 6:53 pm

    Thank you for writing about Larry. As I continue to process his passing, it is wonderful to read all the tributes about him. I couldn’t agree more, Larry was a warm and compassionate man who enriched my life, our synagogue and our community.

    • David on March 22, 2019 at 7:01 pm

      Indeed, Valerie. He was the right person for the job and did it extremely well.

  6. Ira on March 22, 2019 at 7:29 pm

    Words are all we have to help us understand the mysteries of life as well as the ordinary thoughts and feelings we have. Every week we try to make sense of why we are here and what we should do about it. We always looked forward to Larry’s focus each week in Torah study and the commentators he introduced us to. From medieval to modern-Nachmainides-Maimonides-Rashi-Jonathan Sacks-Arthur Green. Talmud downtown was indeed special-different from Torah Study! Some outstanding classes. We could always count on him (with your counsel) to offer a class where he knew we would attend. It was a time to look forward to-hanging out, eating, learning! I miss those nights. And most importantly, he performed our marriage ceremony. He brought to sunshine that year 2010 and a very rainy March to a beautiful ceremony that was the best day of my life up to that point.

    My wonderful wife, who was not a synagogue person was courted and convinced to join through an Intro to Judaism class taught by Larry and then Larry took JoBeth out to lunch to close the deal. All this happened at the same time I met JoBeth-on JDate-. JoBeth and I think that CSI offered free months on JDate because of our success(we know it worked for other as well but we like to think it Was because of us. So we both associate Larry as part of the reason our life is so wonderful-filled with joy-knowing he played an important role.

    We will carry on doing our CSI synagogue thing knowing the legacy he left is in our hands as an inspiration.

  7. Ira on March 22, 2019 at 7:30 pm

    Oh and David, as always your words are only as you could write. You are a master!

    • David on March 22, 2019 at 8:46 pm

      Thanks and for your thoughts below. And, happy anniversary!

  8. Nancy Sheftel-Gomes on March 22, 2019 at 9:27 pm

    What I have found out in the past five days about Larry:
    Several people had regular lunch dates with Larry, and we each had our special spot.
    Every comment written this week is similar reflecting on Larry’s menchlichit and kindness- it was all true.
    If Larry were here with us he would comfort us,
    So let us be comforted by each other and what Larry gave us.
    I know that I am a better person for having known him.
    He was my friend.
    I am grateful.

    • David on March 22, 2019 at 10:04 pm

      Absolutely, Nancy. Except that we had a roster of lunch spots—which means little, since Larry was big on salads with tuna almost everywhere.

  9. Sandy Lipkowitz on March 24, 2019 at 1:50 am

    It was only a couple of days before Larry passed that we had dinner together and you told us of your last visit with him. I’m so sorry for the loss of your dear friend. That’s really tough. May his memory be for blessing and may the memories you have of him, bring you smiles.

    • David on March 24, 2019 at 3:54 pm

      Thanks, Sandy. I have lots of smiles, and those live forever.

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