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.”