Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal, computer buff, musician, jokester and spiritual leader, 1952-2019
As a UC San Diego undergraduate, Leonard Rosenthal studied computers and pursued a budding passion for high-tech gadgetry.
“He was a tech geek,” said David Ogul, a friend. “He could have had a very successful career as an IT person.”
Others believe that Rosenthal, a skilled accordion player and violinist, could have been a professional musician.
Instead, he became what his mother had urged him not to be: a rabbi. Why?
“Because I loved Judaism and wanted to share it with others,” Rabbi Rosenthal said in a 2017 interview. “I ultimately decided you have to love Jews — that’s first — and then Judaism.”
Rosenthal died suddenly on Feb. 14. He was 66.
He grew up in the San Fernando Valley, the son of observant Jews. His mother, seeing the stressful life of a family friend, a rabbi, warned her son against that calling. But Rosenthal’s faith led him to change his focus at UCSD, from computer science to Jewish studies. Later, he worked at temples in New Jersey, Florida and Orange County.
Rosenthal returned to San Diego as the associate rabbi, then rabbi, of Tifereth Israel, a Conservative synagogue in San Carlos.
He succeeded Rabbi Aaron Gold, one of the area’s most beloved Jewish leaders. Stepping into those shoes and leading a large, varied congregation, Rosenthal once said, was “not that easy to do. It took me a few years to find my own footing.”
Once he did, though, he was on solid ground. His long tenure as Tifereth Israel’s rabbi — 29 years — only ended with voluntary retirement in 2017. Rosenthal was admired by his peers, as well as his congregants. He served as president of the San Diego Rabbinical Association and as executive board member for the Rabbinical Association’s Pacific Southwest Region.
A teacher steeped in Judaism, he was also an incurable jokester whose humor struck many as not quite ready for prime time.
“Between the quirky, often less-than-funny dad and rabbi jokes,” said son-in-law Jeremy Gerstle, “was a man with real-life advice to give, always communicated without an ounce of condescension, who valued fairness, respect, and doing the right thing no matter what.”
He personally greeted newcomers to the synagogue, and supported charitable causes inside and outside the Jewish community.
“He was probably the most honest, hard-working person I knew,” said his wife, Judy, “and genuinely cared about the people he worked with and for.”
Many of those people, including his administrative assistant, Kandice Zelaskowski, were Gentiles. A few years ago, her adult son fell seriously ill in Missouri. The worried mother wanted to see her boy, but had already exhausted her vacation time for the year.
No problem. The rabbi insisted Zelaskowski take his vacation days to visit the young man.
Rosenthal also traded tips on jazz recordings and groups with a fellow jazz fan, Zelakowski’s daughter.
“He was just so funny and so impish,” Kandice Zelaskowski said. “He was just a very lovely human being.”
He was healthy, too, or seemed to be. He chose to retire early — his contract would have expired later this year — so the temple could seek fresh, youthful leadership and he could spend more time with his children and grandchildren.
“He had almost two years of enjoying his family,” the rabbi’s widow said. “He made every day special in that period.”
On Jan. 16, he felt pain in his calf. Doctors discovered it was a blood clot. While hospitalized, he was found to have suffered a hemorrhagic stroke.
He underwent more tests and treatments, but seemed to respond well.
He came home Feb. 11. While going to bed two nights later, he collapsed. Paramedics rushed him to the hospital, but he was pronounced dead soon after midnight on Feb. 14.
That was a Thursday. Under Jewish tradition, the dead are buried quickly — and before Shabat begins at sundown Friday. Although Rosenthal’s memorial service was hastily scheduled for that Friday at 1 p.m., about 1,000 people attended.
At least as many showed up for the week-long period of mourning, held at Tifereth Israel. Attendees recalled a wise, compassionate, outgoing, generous man with an ardent love for Judaism and a questionable sense of humor. .
“When we were sitting shiva,” said Ogul, a former Union-Tribune reporter and Tifereth Israel’s current president, “we would see who could remember the worst rabbi jokes.”
Asked to repeat one, Ogul declined. There was too much else he wanted to share about his rabbi and friend.
Rosenthal is survived by his wife, Judy; their children, Adina and her husband, Jeremy; Adam and his wife, Sarah; and Margalit; plus six grandchildren.
A Rabbi Rosenthal Memorial Fund has been established at the Jewish Community Foundation; donations may be made at jcfsandiego.org.