Rabbi Ferenc Raj was born at the height of World War II in Budapest, Hungary. He survived the Holocaust through the heroic efforts of the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. At a very early age he and his brother, both witnesses to the continued destruction of Jewish life in Hungary, determined to become rabbis and dedicate their lives to the preservation of Judaism. As a young rabbi in Communist Hungary, Ferenc was closely involved in the Jewish underground movement as one of the organizers and leaders of Zionist programs. In 1972, under the threat of imprisonment for teaching Jewish studies and Hebrew to the young, an activity that was strictly forbidden, Rabbi Raj escaped from Hungary for America. Rabbi Raj continued his rabbinic career in America serving Reform congregations in Brooklyn, New York and Belmont, Massachusetts prior to his election as Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth El of Berkeley California.
Ferenc is a graduate of both the University of Budapest where he earned a Master's Degree and a Diploma of Merit in Near Eastern Studies, and the Jewish Theological Seminary of Hungary where he was ordained as a Liberal rabbi in 1967. He continued his post-graduate studies at Columbia University and Brandeis University and taught Jewish history courses at HUC-JIR (Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion) of New York. In 2004 Ferenc successfully defended his PhD dissertation entitled: "A History of the Jews in Hungary during Ottoman Domination: 1526-1686" at the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department of Brandeis University in Waltham Massachusetts.
Prior to this academic accomplishment, in 1992 the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion conferred the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Divinity upon Rabbi Raj, "Whose commitment to learning is in the highest tradition of the Rabbinic calling, who studied and prepared for the Rabbinate behind the Iron Curtain and taught our people the values and ideals of Judaism at great personal danger and risk, whose personal life epitomizes the Rabbinic commitment to furthering our religion, who rebuilt his life and rose to positions of leadership in his community."
Rabbi Raj has always played an active role in building bridges among various Jewish denominations. He is deeply committed to fostering and maintaining a strong relationship between the Jewish community and other faith communities. He was instrumental in organizing and establishing the annual Berkeley multi-faith Thanksgiving service and the joint African-American Jewish commemoration of the birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ferenc celebrates diversity in his personal life and works together with the Beth El clergy and lay leadership to assure that the congregation extends a welcome to all people. He is dedicated to working together with his community in projects and activities that further Tzedakah (Charity), Gemillut Chassadim (Deeds of Loving Kindness) and Tikkun Olam (Mending the World).
Rabbi Raj retired from Congregation Beth El on June 30, 2007 and continues in his role as Rabbi Emeritus of this prestigious Berkeley synagogue. He is also Founding Rabbi of Bet Orim Reform Jewish Congregation, Hungary’s newest Jewish congregation in Budapest, where he spends two periods of approximately 2-4 months each leading the congregation. Together with the Temple’s lay leadership he has developed engaging and inspiring liturgy, meaningful educational projects for all age groups, community building events and leadership training. Ferenc conducts weekly Sabbath services, performs life cycle ceremonies and leads egalitarian High Holy Day and Festival services. Since Rabbi Raj is fluent in both Hungarian and English, he is able to reach out to Budapest's English speaking Jews who otherwise might be lost in a Hungarian synagogue.
During the Fall Semester of the Academic Year 2009-10 he was appointed visiting professor at the Eötvös Loránd University where he taught graduate courses on Jewish philosophy. This year Ferenc will continue teaching at the Pázmány Péter Catholic University, where he is also an active participant of the ongoing Christian-Jewish Dialogue conferences and other interfaith projects. In addition to his rabbinic duties on two continents, Rabbi Raj is currently a visiting scholar at the Graduate Theological Union and at the Institute of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies of the University of California in Berkeley.
He is married to Paula Raj, an inner city high school teacher. They have four children and nine grandchildren.