By Donald H. Harrison, San Diego Jewish World, a member of the San Diego Online News Association
February 17, 2019 (San Diego) - A parade of rabbinical colleagues and family members mourning Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal, praised him, which they acknowledged he would have hated, and told jokes about him, which they said he would have loved. The rabbi’s funeral service was attended by hundreds of congregants and friends Friday afternoon in the congregation he had served for over 30 years, Tifereth Israel Synagogue.
Rosenthal, 66, died suddenly Thursday of what was described by one speaker as a probable cardiac event. He had been hospitalized weeks before with a blood clot, and later had a stroke. After being released to the home he shared with his wife Judy, he complained of not feeling well, and died suddenly, according to a family member who added that the rabbi did not suffer.
Dalin related that Rosenthal grew up in the Sepulveda area of the San Fernando Valley, attended public school, loved musical instruments, particularly the accordion and violin, studied computer science at UC San Diego, and served as a counselor at Camp Ramah and also at Tifereth Israel Synagogue, where he met his future wife, Judy Feigelson. He enrolled at the University of Judaism (today called American Jewish University), later transferring to Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. He occupied a student pulpit in New Jersey, where daughter Adina, and son Adam were born, and next moved to Tampa, Florida, where daughter Margalit was born. He moved on to California to take a rabbinical position in Costa Mesa, and in 1988 accepted a position as associate rabbi at Tifereth Israel Synagogue, serving with then senior Rabbi Aaron Gold, z”l, who retired in 1990. Rosenthal, in turn retired in 2016, but continued as emeritus rabbi up to his illness.
Rabbi Joshua Dorsch, who had succeeded Rosenthal as Tifereth Israel’s spiritual leader two years ago, set the tone for the hour-long service in the synagogue’s sanctuary by recalling the time he first spoke to Rosenthal by telephone about the position he planned to vacate. “So, you’re the jerk who is trying to take my job,” Rosenthal joked, stunning Dorsch into silence until Rosenthal explained he was just kidding.
Dorsch suggested that Rosenthal had a “unique and somewhat snarky sense of humor.”
Relations between a new rabbi and an emeritus rabbi can be dicey, Dorsch related. However, he said “Len and Judy” went out of their way to make him comfortable. Standing on the bima, with Rosenthal’s plain wooden casket on the floor near him, Dorsch said he felt awe at being on such an occasion in the sanctuary for which Rosenthal had raised funds over the years and had so faithfully served the congregation. He added that he would miss him as a mentor, confidante, and friend.
To officiate for the rest of the service, Dorsch called upon the San Diego Community Chaplain, Rabbi Ralph Dalin, who was not only a classmate of Rosenthal’s at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York but also was his Torah study partner there. Dalin recalled that when he and his wife Hedy arrived in San Diego about 20 years ago, they were greeted warmly by Rosenthal, who urged him to please not call him by the name everyone used at JTS, “Lenny.” So thereafter, it was “Len.”
Dalin said Rosenthal either was a “serious funny person” or a “funny serious person.” He was fond of wisecracking, no more so than when he was standing next to Dalin during a reading of the megillah at a Purim celebration. Rosenthal, who technically was serving as a gabbai – the person who is supposed to make sure no word of Scripture is misspoken – often would whisper jokes and twirl a large wooden grogger while Dalin was trying to read aloud from the Book of Esther.
Rosenthal was serious in his “dedication to the Jewish people” and was “deeply caring of his congregants individually and collectively,” Dalin said. There were occasions when Rosenthal would visit family members out of town, and then would hear that a member of his congregation had died. He would compose a eulogy, even though he was on vacation, and send it to Dalin, so the words spoken by a substitute at a funeral could be from someone who personally knew the deceased.
At a recent tribute dinner for Rabbi Rosenthal, Dalin said he asked Rosenthal’s sister-in-law Beth Klareich, the program director at Tifereth Israel Synagogue, what kind of gift would the rabbi welcome. She responded that if he really wanted to honor Rosenthal, he could contribute to the fund to redo the synagogue’s bathrooms. Dalin explained that “from a fundraising perspective,” renovation of restrooms is a hard sell.
Rabbi Michael Gotlieb, spiritual leader of Congregation Kehillat Ma’arav in Santa Monica, told the mourners at Tifereth Israel that in 1974 when Rosenthal had not yet decided to become a rabbi, he had served as Gotlieb’s confirmation teacher at Congregation Beth Tefilah, a Conservative congregation that later merged with Adat Ami Synagogue to become Ohr Shalom Synagogue.
He remembered that Rosenthal cared that his students learn the material, and added that “genuine goodness was his hallmark.” He said by chance he spoke to Rosenthal on Wednesday, just the day before he died, and that Rosenthal told him that having survived a stroke, his appreciation of life had intensified.
Rabbi Adam Rosenthal, who followed in his father’s footsteps, related that there is a Talmudic passage in which rabbis ponder whether one should save one’s father or one’s teacher, in the event that only one could be saved from drowning. The Talmudic rabbis decided that it was more important to save the teacher. When Adam spoke to his father about it, Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal quipped that passage “no doubt was written by a teacher.” Adam said he always thought he would be safe from that Talmudic predicament because in saving his father, he would be saving his teacher, and vice versa. But now, he said, he has lost both.
Margalit Rosenthal, who is the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’s vice president of the Nu-Roots program, which fosters adult engagement in Jewish life, described her father as her role model and as one who was optimistic, selfless and honest. “He never wanted to be the center of attention,” she said. She added that he loved Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, and some of her fond memories were helping him to “clean up spills and crumbs before my mom discovered them.”
Rabbi Rosenthal’s other daughter, Adina Rosenthal, was represented by her husband Jeremy Gerstle, who described the rabbi as both a wonderful father-in-law and a model grandfather. “I’ll have to tell them about their saba, by exemplifying his moral compass,” he said.
The final speaker was Rabbi Devorah Marcus of Temple Emanu-El, a Reform congregation which routinely partners with Tifereth Israel Synagogue for Tashlich services at Lake Murray. Marcus, the current president of the San Diego Rabbinical Association, reeled off a number of adjectives to describe Rosenthal, among them “beloved… cantankerous … ornery… sarcastic, loving… devoted.” She added that he would hate to be the subject of such a commentary.
She met him after she started as the new rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, which previously had been served for many years by Rabbi Martin S. Lawson, who retired. Rosenthal came to Temple Emanu-El and, after introducing himself, “offered to beat up Marty, if I ever needed it.” Lawson and Rosenthal were fast friends.
Marcus added that Rosenthal took the time to make meaningful contact with others. He also had his zany side. The first time she saw him at Tashlich services (on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, when Jews symbolically cast their sins onto the water), he was wearing a chili pepper shirt, a hat, and an accordion. She said she decided there and then “that rabbi was definitely going to be my friend.”
Marcus said Rosenthal spoke “truth to power,” and recalled when the Orthodox Rabbinate in Israel created a “blacklist” of rabbis in the Diaspora, whose conversions they would not accept, Rosenthal wrote to them an indignant letter, demanding that he too be put on the list.
She added that Rosenthal had a “signature cheekiness” along with a deep “belief in Jewish pluralism.”
Following the chanting of El Moleh Rachamim, Rabbi Rosenthal’s coffin was wheeled from the sanctuary to a waiting hearse, which transported him to the Home of Peace Cemetery for a private burial.
Shiva services will be held 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 16, through Wednesday, Feb. 20, in the Tifereth Israel sanctuary at 6660 Cowles Mountain Boulevard, San Diego. Those wishing to honor Rabbi Rosenthal’s memory may donate to the Rabbi Rosenthal Memorial Fund at the Jewish Community Foundation via www.jcfsandiego.org