August 16, 2020
The Central Conference of American Rabbis mourns the death of its esteemed past president, Rabbi Samuel E. Karff, D.H.L., who died after a brief illness on Shabbat R’eih, August 15, 2020, surrounded by his daughters.
Rabbi Karff led the CCAR as President from 1989 to 1991, having previously served as Editor of the CCAR’s Journal of Reform Judaism. However, his leadership and significant influence upon our Reform Movement transcended these high offices, as he provided wisdom and guidance to generations of Reform rabbis and lay leaders.
Rabbi Karff authored three books: Agada: The Language of Jewish Faith; The Soul of the Rav; and Permission to Believe: Finding Faith in Troubled Times, and his scholarship, teaching, speaking, and writing have left a profound and enduring impact upon on the Reform Jewish world and the interfaith community he cherished so highly.
Rabbi Karff was the epitome of a “Rabbi’s rabbi.” Whether the relationship began when growing up in a congregation he led, when serving at his side, when learning with him as a student, or when seeking his invaluable counsel, countless Reform rabbis would say, “Sam Karff was my rabbi.”
Rabbi Karff served congregations in West Hartford, Connecticut, where he met and married his beloved wife Joan, z”l, and in Flint, Michigan. He served Chicago Sinai Congregation as Senior Rabbi from 1962 to 1975, and ultimately led Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, Texas as Senior Rabbi from 1975-1999.
After he transitioned to the role of Beth Israel’s Rabbi Emeritus in 1999, Rabbi Karff undertook a groundbreaking venture, founding the Health and Human Spirit Program—now the McGovern Center for Humanities & Ethics— of The University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, where he continued on the faculty until his death.
In the truest spirit of our prophets, Rabbi Karff was devoted to the cause of justice and equality throughout his rabbinate. In Houston, he was known as one of the “three amigos,” working closely with Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza and Reverend Bill Lawson for over a quarter century in the pursuit of social justice. Rabbi Karff had recently attended the funeral of George Floyd with Rev. Lawson.
The Central Conference of American Rabbis extends condolences to Rabbi Karff’s cherished daughters—Rachel Karff Weissenstein, Amy Karff (and Amir) Halevy, and Elizabeth Karff Seitz, and his dear grandchildren. We grieve with the entire Congregation Beth Israel family, especially Rabbi Karff’s treasured colleagues: his successor Rabbi David Lyon, and Rabbi Adrienne Scott.
Rabbi Ronald Segal Rabbi Hara E. Person
President Chief Executive
Central Conference of American Rabbis