April 30, 2003
After more than 30 years, Sanford Ragins retires from Leo Baeck Temple.
As posted on its Web site, part of Leo Baeck Temple's mission is to "develop an island of serenity within a complex, troubled world." This spring, the Reform synagogue says goodbye to a rabbi whose decades of calm, scholarly leadership is responsible for much of that serenity.
Rabbi Sanford Ragins, who has been with Leo Baeck Temple (LBT) since 1972 and is only the second senior rabbi in the synagogue's 55-year history, is retiring in June. The West Los Angeles temple will celebrate his career this weekend with worship, study and social events.
"Sandy is everything a rabbi should be," Dan Giesberg, LBT's president, told The Journal. "He has filled the spirit of the temple for years."
Born in Chicago, Ragins, 67, moved to Los Angeles as a child and graduated from Beverly Hills High School and UCLA. He stayed in town to begin his rabbinical training at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's (HUC-JIR) newly established campus, then in the Hollywood Hills, where he became one of the first four HUC-JIR students to earn master's degrees in Hebrew letters in Los Angeles.
"I like to say that I was 25 percent of my class and graduated in the top four," Ragins told The Journal.
Ragins was ordained at HUC-JIR's Cincinnati school in 1962 and, torn between an academic and a congregational career, pursued a doctorate at Brandeis University in German Jewish history. Deciding on congregational work in 1964, he spent his first two years at LBT, first as an interim rabbi during founding rabbi Leonard Beerman's sabbatical, then as Beerman's first assistant rabbi.
After holding pulpits in Lincoln, Neb., and Hartsdale, N.Y., Ragins returned to LBT as associate rabbi. He was named Beerman's successor five years later and became LBT's senior rabbi when Beerman retired in 1986.
Ragins has maintained an academic career during his tenure at Leo Baeck, teaching courses including history and homiletics for many years at HUC-JIR. More recently, he has been the "Jewish teacher" at Occidental College in Eagle Rock, teaching an introductory Jewish studies course and one on the Holocaust.
"If there's anything unique about my rabbinate, it's the intersection between scholarship and congregational work," Ragins said. He's currently working on a book, "Judaism for Moderns," with historian Robert Seltzer.
His students treasure Ragins' scholarly bent. "Sandy's greatest strength is as a teacher," Giesberg said.
"Most good teachers are appreciated in the moment and maybe also become a fond memory," Rabbi Lisa Edwards of Beth Chayim Chadashim, who studied with Ragins at HUC-JIR, told The Journal. "Sandy Ragins has been both of those."
Perhaps even more prized is his ability to offer a listening ear to his congregants. "I can't think of anyone who's a better pastor for people in need," said Beerman of his former associate.
Rabbi Lewis Barth, dean of HUC-JIR's Los Angeles school, who has known Ragins since they were teenagers active in Reform youth circles, said Ragins is not only "a first-rate preacher and a teacher of great intellect and religious depth" but also "a devoted pastor to his congregation, really connected with them in their joys and their sorrows."
That connection is important to Ragins. "I've always been fascinated with what happens to people in times of crisis, both tsuris and simcha," he said. "I've come over time to understand how my role as a rabbi allows me to be a part of their healing."
He indicated that Leo Baeck Temple has an institutional character that facilitates his role as a listener, saying that the temple "has always been dedicated to doing things on a human scale, to be the kind of place where people are connected to the clergy."
Ragins also appreciates LBT's pluralism, citing its longtime welcome to intermarried, interracial and gay and lesbian families. And he lauds the temple's "atmosphere of trust and support" that grants him freedom of expression in the pulpit, no matter what the issue.
"I've never felt the slightest hesitation about speaking my mind," he said.
Ragins has been outspoken on a wide range of issues, including the prospects for peace in Israel and areas such as labor and interfaith cooperation in this country. He has served in the difficult post of chair for the Central Conference of American Rabbis' committee on ethics, which investigates allegations of wrongful behavior by Reform rabbis. Ragins has also made a number of biannual trips to Berlin with Barth to teach German divinity students about Judaism.
He and his wife of almost 41 years, Masayo, have three children. Masayo Ragins was an international student at HUC when Ragins met her; she had been sent by her professor in Japan, a man appalled by Japan's anti-Semitism, to study and return to Japan to help him educate their compatriots about Judaism.
"She got sidetracked," Ragins said. "She met me, converted, and we got married the day after my ordination."
Ragins will be succeeded by Rabbi Kenneth Chasen, who is transferring from Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y.
"We hope that lightning strikes a third time," Giesberg said.
He doesn't expect Ragins to fade from the scene, though: "He's more than a rabbi; he's a member of our community, and I expect he'll be around."
So does Ragins, who believes LBT will continue to thrive.
"The health of his congregation and its prospects for the future and for change are excellent," he said. "That's how Judaism has survived."
Giesberg, though, credits that to the rabbi he's known since he was a child, saying, "The community has been wonderful because he's been wonderful."
For information about Leo Baeck Temple's celebration of Rabbi Sanford Ragins, call (310) 476-2861.