SAMS Roots Interview – Rabbi Rafi Kaiserblueth

Rabbi Rafi Kaiserblueth

rafiRafi was born in Puerto Rico to South American parents and grew up in the USA. After visiting SAMS in 2007 as a student rabbi, Rafi completed his studies and became SAMS’ full-time rabbi. In 2013 he married Rachel, later producing a new SAMS member, their baby son Toby. The Kaiserblueths will soon be moving to Australia to be closer to Rachel’s family. Here Rafi talks about his European roots, his love of America, and becoming a rabbi:

At the Jewish Theological Seminary, they tell us that the interview process and job selection are a lot like dating – you’re looking for the best fit, and I really feel that SAMS has been the best fit for me. I came here for a three-month stint and committed to staying for two years after completing my studies. That was five-and-a-half years ago. I’ve been really happy at SAMS and have collected a treasure trove of memories, experiences and friendships that I will take with me on my new journey.

My parents met when my dad was a student rabbi in Lima, Peru, where Mom was born and where both she and Dad grew up. Dad had moved to Lima from Argentina when he was a baby. His first date with my mom was between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, just like my first date with Rachel. Me and my siblings were all born in different places – Yoni in Sao Paolo and Elisheva in Los Angeles – where we moved when I was young. In later years my parents relocated to Vancouver. They’ve now retired to Atlanta, Georgia, to be close to my sister and her family. My brother lives in Washington DC with his wife and kids. So you could say my family epitomises the wandering Jew!

rafiparents

Rafi’s parents at their wedding in Lima, Peru in 1974.

My father’s father, Fritz, was a lawyer in Germany in the early 1930s, but after the Nuremburg laws passed it wasn’t a good place to be a Jew. His brother Paul had already moved to Bolivia, so Fritz left everything and moved to Potosi, then a tiny little town forty-five-hundred metres high. Most of the rest of the family didn’t make it out of Germany. In 1943 my dad’s sister was born up in Potosi. They didn’t have an incubator so they put her in a shoe box. Two years later, when it was my dad’s turn to be born, they went to Buenos Aires where medicine was more advanced, so that’s how he ended up being born there.

My mom’s father, Hans, was Austrian. He tried to get a United States visa but in 1938 he gave up waiting and boarded a ship to Lima with friends. He and his girlfriend were married by proxy over the phone so she could get a visa to join him in Lima, where they raised their two children.

A typical Shabbat at our home in Los Angeles was always about family. Hans and his wife Edith, who by this time lived in California, came over mid-afternoon on Friday. Hans would have a siesta, typical in South American culture. At six o’clock the whole family sat down for dinner, because my dad had to be at shul at eight o’clock. Dad worked crazy hours so we didn’t see him much during the week. Shabbat was a joy, something to look forward to, and it became a time we’d spend with my dad.

There’s something about the United States that I deeply love. It’s a country that took my family in and gave us opportunities and stability. I think everyone should serve in some capacity so I serve my people as a rabbi and as a US Navy chaplain. A life of service reinforces the sense of being part of something bigger than yourself, which I feel is often lost these days.

Becoming a rabbi wasn’t inevitable. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I volunteered on an ambulance for six years in New York, which was an amazing experience, but I wasn’t passionate about medicine. I got a degree in Military History and a degree in Talmud. I asked for advice from a senior member of JTS. He asked what I like to do so I told him, and then he said, ‘You just rattled off that you love your tradition, you love teaching, you love people – why aren’t you considering becoming a rabbi?’ It was then that the penny dropped.

Moving to England was an exciting opportunity and an adventure. My father used to tell me all the time, ‘I give you roots and wings’, so I know where I come from, but you’ve got to explore a little bit.

Interview and story by Caroline Pearce
Interview date 5 January 2016