Rabbi Yosef Langer rides on his own philosophy

By Will Reisman
Examiner Staff Writer 12/13/08

Bay Area native and biker Rabbi Yosef Langer brought Chabad to S.F. in the '70's and has been rallyig the community ever since. Cindy Chew/The Examiner

» More Photos SAN FRANCISCO – He sports a long, flowing beard, his transportation method of choice is a motorcycle, he counts among friends rock star Perry Farrell, and he was a regular attendee of Grateful Dead concerts.

Yes, Yosef Langer meets all the requirements of your typical, grizzled ex-roadie, but the 62-year-old’s real day job is as a rabbi. He’s also one of the Bay Area’s most visible — and unconventional — religious leaders.

A Bay Area native, Langer has been a tireless local advocate for Judaism by bringing his message to the most diverse arenas — including San Francisco Giants baseball games, music festivals and on The City’s famous cable cars — with an infectious approach that proves he has no intent to slow down, even after three decades in the field.

A product of the 1960s counterculture movement, Langer was raised in Oakland and originally sought a career as a merchant seaman. While traveling abroad, his contemporaries explored many hedonistic outlets — their “holy land” was South America, where beautiful women and contraband were easily accessible, according to the rabbi — but Langer pined for something more spiritual and meaningful.

Delving first into biblical studies, yoga and macrobiotics, Langer eventually chose to pursue his roots by studying Chabad-Lubavitch, a form of Orthodox Judaism that preaches wisdom, understanding and knowledge.

By 1975, Langer had founded a Chabad house of teaching in Berkeley — the second of its kind in the United States — and by 1979 he expanded to San Francisco.

It was during this time of continual religious awakening that Langer acquired his trademark set of wheels, courtesy of a unique transaction.

Stationed outside a Grateful Dead concert at the Shoreline Amphitheatre — where he was handing out apples as a way to create awareness about Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year — Langer ran into an old friend from Los Angeles.

Knowing his friend was wealthy, Langer asked him if he would donate a vehicle to the Chabad house for outreach purposes.

“I said I was looking for a ‘mitzvah mobile,’” said Langer, referring to the Hebrew word for good deed. “This guy told me he’d give me a ‘mitzvah mo-bike.’ I’ve been riding that motorcycle ever since.” 

Using his motorcycle to spread the word, Langer quickly helped the Chabad movement grow in the Bay Area, with new locations sprouting up in Marin County and in Noe Valley in The City.

Not content to merely canvas the streets with his two-wheeler, Langer took to more alternative means to reach his audience, including operating a San Francisco cable car to give Jewish-themed tours of San Francisco, and establishing “Purimpalooza,” an annual music festival that has featured the likes of the aforementioned Farrell and Matisyahu, a Hasidic Jewish rapper.

Though superficially these acts may seem like simple promotional tools for his religious agenda, Langer has a deep concern for people of all backgrounds, according to Peter Dwares, a San Francisco entrepreneur and real estate expert who has known the rabbi for more than 25 years.

“First and foremost, he is a human being who cares for everybody,” Dwares said. “He is a rabbi, but his real work is with the people who need help the most. There are no religious boundaries.”

Dwares points to Chabad’s emphasis on helping low-income residents and recovering drug addicts as the true basis for Langer’s mission.

Combining secular interests with religious sympathies is what makes Langer so approachable, said Craig Solomon, a ticket sales executive with the Giants.

After returning from a trip to Israel in 1995, Solomon attended a service with Langer and immediately became hooked on the rabbi’s philosophy.

“I’ll never forget it. I went to a Friday night Shabbat service with Rabbi Langer,” said Solomon, “and he spoke at length about Jerry Garcia. I knew right then that this was the guy for me.”

In 2006, the two met up again, this time after Solomon suggested that Langer blow the shofar — a ram’s horn that is used as a signaling trumpet in the Jewish religion — behind home plate during the third inning of the Giants’ annual Jewish Heritage Night at AT&T Park.

Langer agreed to the premise and blew the horn to such immense fan appreciation that three innings later he was out behind home plate again. The Giants lost that night, but club officials deemed Langer the “Rally Rabbi” — and soon thereafter issued their own special rabbi bobblehead doll giveaway at the park.

“You know, I actually like the name, because rallying is what I do,” Langer said. “It’s all about outreach and trying to bring something special to the world.”

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Menorah's lighting carries on legendary music man's legacy


Legendary concert promoter Bill Graham made his mark in the Bay Area by establishing several of The City’s benchmark music venues — including the Fillmore and Warfield — while maintaining nearly as high a profile as the acts he filled them with.

A legacy of Graham’s that endures today, however, started from an act of goodwill in which he was uncharacteristically camera shy.

In 1975, Graham, who as a young child was a refugee from Nazi Germany, approached several well-known Jewish religious leaders and inquired about the possibility of staging a public lighting of the menorah, a Jewish symbol that marks the eight holy days of Hanukkah.

Among those Jewish leaders was Rabbi Yosef Langer, then a man in his 20s who leapt at the idea of bringing the menorah to the masses.

With Graham’s financial backing, Langer and others were able to erect and light a 22-foot-tall menorah in Union Square — the first public display of its kind outside Israel.

“Bill was looking for something to take the spirit of Judaism out to the marketplace,” Langer said. “We organized everything because he didn’t want to be very open with his Jewishness. But without him, none of this would have been possible.”

Although Graham, who died in a helicopter crash in 1991, rarely made any formal public appearances at the lighting ceremonies, he always made an effort to slip in and check things out, Langer said.

“I remember one year where I didn’t see Bill,” Langer said. “It was cold, raining, and after a while it was just me, the seagulls and the homeless. Then, he showed up at the very end and gave me a smile. It was very important to him.”

With Graham gone, Langer is now the chief organizer of the event, which is funded by private donors and draws thousands of people each year. Even though the flamboyant music aficionado is gone, Graham’s spirit lives on with each year that the menorah is lit, Langer said.

“He was a very unique individual,” said Langer. “He believed in the universal symbol of the menorah. It’s the message that a little light pushes out the darkness.”

— Will Reisman


Rabbi Yosef Langer


Age: 62 
Birthplace: Oakland
Residence: Richmond district
Education: San Jose State, Hadar Torah/Rabbinical Seminary
Family: Wife, two sons, three daughters
Favorite books: The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Discourses
Favorite type of music: Jewish hip-hop, reggae
Favorite sports team: San Francisco Giants
Hobbies: Golf
Favorite thing about the Bay Area: The openness of the people
What he wants to be remembered for: “To fulfill the purpose for why I was sent here by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, while leading my service to the people with my heart.”
Role model and inspiration: The Lubavitcher Rebbe, and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.


If you go


What: Annual lighting of the menorah
When: 3 p.m. Dec. 21
Where: Union Square
Entertainment: Isaiah and the Prophets, a Hasidic Jewish hip-hop group
Expected attendance: 3,500-4,000