The 2018 San Francisco Gala Co-Chair Continues to Overcompensate for Childhood ‘Naughtiness’ in Tel Aviv
Varda Rabin has a confession to make.
“I will have to share with you a little bit about naughtiness,” she said playfully by telephone from her home in Tiburon.
Rabin is one of six co-chairs organizing the AFIPO’s Annual San Francisco fundraiser on October 28 and a prominent figure in launching and sustaining Jewish institutions in Northern California and her native Israel. She and her late husband, Irving Rabin, shared a commitment to the Israel Philharmonic that began more than 45 years ago.
Now she claims that the decades of subscribing, underwriting, and Gala co-chairing have all been payback for childhood indiscretions.
It all began in Neve Tzedek, the first neighborhood of Tel Aviv outside of Jaffa, where her oldest sister, Mala, introduced the family to classical music.
“Mala played the violin and loved to go to concerts and we all loved to listen to classical music,” she explained.
“When we moved to a better neighborhood,” she said, with a hint of sarcasm, “it was close to Ohel Shem where the Israel Philharmonic first played. My friends and I would go to that building’s library. Soon we found that if we waited in the bathroom until the program started, we could quietly sneak into the hall and hear the music.
“That was the beginning of my being mischievous,” she said.
Mann Auditorium opened in 1956 and its adjacent park, Gan Yaakov, had a building with a second floor balcony. For adventurous adolescents hungry for live symphonic music, it afforded a perch to the Mann’s second floor porch.
“We kids didn’t have much and so we came up with all these adventures, like sneaking to places and climbing where we shouldn’t be,” Rabin said. “When they finished Gan Yaakov we said, ‘Now we can sneak into the Philharmonic!’ We all pitched in for one ticket so one could be inside and open the door to the porch where the rest of us would be, having already jumped from the Gan Yaakov balcony.
“And,” she chuckled, “that’s why I say I am paying for my childhood fully with my commitment to the symphony now.”
A NEW FABRIC
Rabin’s parents and two oldest sisters had arrived in Neve Tzedek from Rogozińska Wola, a tiny village near Lodz, Poland, in 1934. Her father had left a job in a textile company belonging to his uncle.
“His uncle begged him to stay and offered to double his salary,” Rabin recalled. “But my father said, ‘If you give me gold from the floor to the ceiling, I’m not going to stay.’ The Zionist club was where he met my mother and both of them wanted to go to Israel. They arrived with two sterling pounds left. A friend took them in and they stayed together until they got their start.”
Her father found and repaired an abandoned textile machine that allowed him to open the first factory in the Middle East. As the pioneers wove a community together in the late 1930s, he was attracting textile clients from around the Middle East.
“One time they came with a camel from Saudi Arabia and it was a Holy Day,” she said. “My father was a religious man and didn’t want to sell. So they stayed in our backyard and were fed, and at the end of the holiday they did the exchange.
“My parents had lived in Poland,” she continued. “They were mistreated, and all of a sudden being in a country that is yours felt like a miracle. Later on, when the Holocaust survivors from our shtetl came, they stayed in our house in Neve Tzedek.”
In March 1945, Rabin was the last of the family’s four daughters to be born. Three years later may have been the first time she heard the Israel Philharmonic. It was May 14, 1948 and her family joined the gathering throng outside the nearby Tel Aviv Museum, where David Ben-Gurion and the Moetzet HaAm were declaring Israel’s statehood. To conclude the ceremony, what now was renamed the Israel Philharmonic, performed “Hatikvah.”
The entire event was carried by radios throughout Israel and in the street in front of the Museum.
“I was sitting on my father’s shoulders when they announced the creation of Israel, which was right by my house,” she said. “The whole family was out; so many families. We were all out there, waiting, as soon as it was announced people started dancing, crying, singing. I remember the excitement: I understood it was very important.”
COMING TO AMERICA
After studying at Bar-Ilan University, she came to the United States with her first husband, who had been accepted to do his PhD at the University of California Berkeley. She would stay in America, but not in the marriage.
As her career got off the ground she would also become a regular patron of the symphonies. Irving Rabin, a fellow classical music-lover, was building a successful auction company and becoming one of the most important Jewish philanthropists in the Bay Area. The native San Franciscan passed away in August 2012, leaving the Bay Area’s Jewish Community and his wife of 33 years an important legacy.
He was co-founder and first president of Young Adult Division (YAD) of Jewish Federation and founder and first president of Jewish Vocational Services. He helped to acquire the land for Menorah Park, and was its first president as well as president of the Magnes Museum of Judaica, helping establish it as one of the great museums of the Bay Area.
PAID BACK WITH INTEREST
“I must say, in watching my husband and seeing what he did in the community, I was empowered to do more,” she said. “I was always active in community work but I never thought that I could make a difference in a big way. I saw that we each have a power. I’ve been very active in the Jewish community ever since.
“In memory of Irving, I organized a mission to Israel for the directors of organizations that help preserve Jewish life,” she continued. “It was a community building trip where we visited only community bonding efforts in Israel that could be a model for our work here. With emphasis on people getting to know other people in every meeting of Jewish community members, we achieved the first level of community bonding. Our directors returned very close to each other and committed to collaboration and cooperation. Now we are working on spreading it to other organizations in San Francisco and bringing it to other cities.”
Similarly, a community spirit has developed over the many years that the San Francisco Gala Chairs have been working together. Susan Libitzky, Lisa Pritzker, Lydia Shorenstein, Eta Somekh, Diane Zack and Varda Rabin are again creating something very special for this year’s benefit on October 28.
“There has always been a special bond between friends in the Bay Area and the Israel Philharmonic and a tradition evolved that every year or two we host a musicale in a private home to benefit education programming in Israel,” said AFIPO West Coast Director Danielle Ames Spivak. “Our Chairs are some of the most elegant, intelligent and experienced lay leaders I know.”
“We have worked together for many, many years, and it’s a pleasure,” said Rabin, who has hosted two past benefits in her home. “When we bring the music to a home, we are able to keep our membership deeply committed. Every patron who comes says that it was an amazing experience and even the host experiences his house elevated. It’s a wonderful way to reach people in the diaspora.”
This year the fundraiser will be a Sunday afternoon musicale at the home of Carol and Norman Traeger, who live right next door to Rabin.
Is she up for recreating her days of balcony jumping?
“No, no, no,” she said, waving off such a thought, then added slyly, “Maybe I’ll slide over on one of those zip lines.”