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Rabbi Bernard Raskas

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Bernard Raskas, prominent St. Paul rabbi

  • Article by: JENNIFER BJORHUS
  • Star Tribune
  • June 13, 2010 - 9:38 PM

Rabbi Bernard Raskas once told a Star Tribune reporter chronicling his impressive career that his job was to get into heaven.

"If one gets one's name in the headlines, that's nice, and everybody knows," he said. "But what gets one into heaven is what one does and nobody knows."

That was just like her father, said daughter Eve Kafitz of St. Paul. He didn't want accolades when he died. "'Just do a good deed in my memory. That is what would honor me,'" she recalled him frequently saying.

Rabbi Raskas died Saturday at Sholom Home in St. Paul. He was 86.

Raskas, who led the Temple of Aaron synagogue in St. Paul's Highland Park for 38 years, was considered one of the most formative and memorable leaders in the Twin Cities Jewish community. He was noted for his civic involvement and "ability to move down the middle" of Judaism and find ways to breathe new life into the faith's ancient traditions, said Rabbi Barry Cytron, former senior rabbi at Adath Jeshurun in Minnetonka.

Raskas was also a prolific author whose best-known work is probably the "Heart of Wisdom" trilogy, a compilation of inspirational readings. He also was known for creating liturgy for the Jewish festivals -- such as the Haggadah for Passover that tells the story of the Exodus from Egypt -- that incorporated new interpretations and elements into the texts.

Raskas and his late wife, Laeh, met in high school in St. Louis. The two reconnected at Washington University in St. Louis, married after graduation and moved to New York, where Raskas attended Jewish Theological Seminary.

In 1951, they moved to St. Paul, where Raskas was assistant rabbi at Temple of Aaron. He was on the job about six months before the synagogue was ruined in a fire. The Raskases were instrumental in the creation of a new signature synagogue on Mississippi River Boulevard in Highland Park, which was dedicated in 1956.

Cytron recalled that it opened with about 600 families and within a decade doubled its size. Raskas, a gifted storyteller, frequently used his Friday night sermons to address current events.

The proud DFLer counted former Vice President Walter Mondale and the late Sen. Paul Wellstone among his friends. In his endorsement of one of Raskas' books, Mondale called Raskas "The Jewish Garrison Keillor."

His children recall how he always made a point to invite a civic leader to their home next to the synagogue for seder. Raskas established the synagogue's longtime interfaith practice of having groups from other faiths visit for services.

In addition, legend had it that Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax was attending services at Temple of Aaron on Yom Kippur in 1965, the day he declined to pitch Game 1 against the Twins during the World Series because the game fell on the sacred day of Yom Kippur. There were many Koufax sightings that day, but Raskas insisted that Koufax was in his synagogue.

After retiring about 1989, Raskas went on to teach religion at Macalester College in St. Paul, becoming the college's first Jewish chaplain. He and Laeh, who traveled the world together, spent part of every summer in Israel.

In addition to his daughter, Raskas is survived by two sons, Hillel and David, and five grandchildren.

Services will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at the Temple of Aaron Synagogue, 616 S. Mississippi River Blvd., St. Paul. Shiva will be held at 7 p.m. Monday and 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Temple of Aaron, and 7 p.m. Wednesday at Sholom Home East, 740 Kay Av., St. Paul. Interment will be at Mount of Olives Cemetery in Jerusalem.

Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683

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