When Rabbi Raphael Asher came to Walnut Creek 33 years ago from a Berkeley congregation, all members of Contra Costa's Council of Churches were Christian.
Asher, serving as an individual on the council's social justice committee, left in a "soft protest" in 1984 after board members decided not to allow a vote on letting members of other faiths join.
But 14 years later, that change came, and the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County was born. Asher became the first non-Christian to be named to the group's executive committee, and later became its president.
The humble Asher takes no credit for his role in diversifying that group.
"It's more of a tribute to Christian ministers ... to see that interfaith dialogue is not only intrinsically rewarding, but a more effective way of addressing social ills with a concentrated enthusiasm," said Asher, retiring after 33 years as the first and only head of Walnut Creek's Congregation B'nai Tikvah.
The well-known leader is known for more than his dedication to Judaism, his intelligence and quiet strength, but as one of the pivotal forces behind creating and sustaining a true interfaith community in Contra Costa.
The Rev. Steve Harms of Peace Lutheran Church in Danville, a past Interfaith Council president, asked Asher to join the council; he said Asher helped both "spiritually and philosophically" expand the foundation of the council.
"He brought integrity, both personally and then professionally, to the organization, and helped establish a strong intention to truly make this a voice that is multifaith," Harms said
He credits Asher for creating, and leading to this day, the council's Health and Faith in Action committee, which helps provide immunizations for impoverished children, chaplains to hospitals and advocates for mental health institutions.
Such interfaith initiatives are important to Asher, not just because there are many interfaith couples in his congregation, but because the reform movement has a social justice mission based on the Hebrew prophets' teachings, he said.
"There is no way for the Jewish community alone to fulfill that mission without help from the non-Jewish community," he said. "The Christian and now the Muslim (faiths) and all the others are much more effective ... doing this as an interfaith community than as a Jewish community."
Today, 107 congregations are part of the interfaith council. That reflects not only the religious diversity in Contra Costa, he said, but also growth. Asher has seen his own congregation grow from 16 families at its 1981 beginning to more than 300.
The seventh-generation rabbi has taken great satisfaction in helping create a "community from the ground up." But it's time to retire for one simple reason: "I'm old," said the 64-year-old, who gave his congregation seven years' notice that he would leave in 2014.
His father was well-known Rabbi Joseph Asher of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. The senior Asher was a refugee from Nazi Germany and involved in many social justice issues. The Asher family didn't necessarily think it was a good idea for Raphael to follow in the tradition.
"Everybody sensed I was a little too thin-skinned," he said. "And (being a rabbi) is a political position."
But after graduating from UC Berkeley, during his first year of rabbinical school in Israel, he found he loved Jewish studies. He saw a "living Judaism in Israel I had never been exposed to here in the states," he said.
And for three decades he has walked the fine line of politics masterfully, said Lisa Wenger, a past president of the B'nai Tikvah board.
"He doesn't tell us what to think about Israeli politics any more than he tells us what to think about American politics," she said. "He just counsels us to be open to other opinions."
A self-described moderate, Asher says that when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he believes in a two-state solution, even if he disagrees with others as to how that solution should be reached. And he counsels his congregation to appreciate Israel rather than simply tell them what to think.
"There is a terrible ignorance about the Zionist enterprise and the richness of Israeli culture, so my emphasis has always been (to) understand Israel, go to Israel," he said. He has led groups there, and plans another trip next year.
His humorous, nonjudgmental style and an ability to explain things without speaking down to or over others have helped make him a great rabbi, Wenger said.
Looking out to Acalanes Ridge, where the B'nai Tikvah synagogue sits, Asher said he has performed more than 700 bar and bat mitzvahs for 12- and 13-year olds, and that's been his favorite part about being the head of the congregation -- teaching the children, getting to know them and watching as they read torah, he said.
"I love the age group," he said. "And it's very distinctively Jewish. It solidifies the family's connection to Jewish life and the Jewish community."
In retirement, Asher said he may teach and also plans to focus on a long-awaited personal family project -- translating biblical commentaries his grandfather and great-grandfathers wrote decades ago. He will also likely spend more time with his wife of 32 years Jennifer Rosenberg and grown daughters Mira and Jocelyn.
Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman from New York is taking over for Asher. While Asher may no longer be in charge, B'nai Tikvah congregants will still find him at Shabbat service. Asher lives five minutes away, will still have rights at the temple and plans to be actively involved, he said.
"I am going to be a very active rabbi emeritus," he said. "This is our community."
Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617. Follow her at Twitter.com/enardi10.