Rice remembers legendary Rabbi Samuel Karff, one of Houston’s ‘Three Wise Men’

Rabbi Samuel Egal Karff, rabbi emeritus of Houston’s Congregation Beth Israel, an influential civil rights advocate and a former lecturer in religious studies at Rice, died Aug. 15. He was 88 years old.

Rabbi Samuel Karff is seen here in a 1986 Campanile as a member of the Religious Studies department at Rice.

Rabbi Samuel Karff is seen here in a 1986 Campanile as a member of the Religious Studies department at Rice.

A graduate of Harvard University, Karff was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he also earned his Doctor of Hebrew Letters degree. He was senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel from 1975 to 1999 and previously served congregations in Boston; Montgomery, Alabama; Hartford, Connecticut; Flint, Michigan; and Chicago.

After retiring from Beth Israel in 1999, Karff founded the Health and Human Spirit Program in the Texas Medical Center, the precursor to the McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics at the McGovern Medical School, where he was an associate faculty member.

In Houston, Karff was best known as a strong advocate for civil rights, social justice and equality. For the last three decades, he joined forces with the Rev. William Lawson of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church and the Catholic Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza. The three faith leaders, affectionately known as the “Three Wise Men” and the “Three Amigos,” were powerful voices in Houston. In April 2019, Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston opened the Brigitte and Bashar Kalai Plaza of Respect, which includes three pillars of light in honor of the interfaith work of Karff, Lawson and Fiorenza.

Karff had a deep affection for Rice, where was invited to deliver the invocation at the university’s 75th commencement in 1988. In his speech, he implored the new graduates to “use power, the fruit of the tree of knowledge, responsibly.”

Karff served as a lecturer at Rice in what was then the Department of Religious Studies for 22 years and co-taught a popular seminar on Jewish-Christian dialogue with professor Werner Kelber throughout the 1990s. Karff was also instrumental in raising the funds for the Anna Smith Fine Chair in Judaic Studies, Rice first endowed chair in Jewish Studies.

Rabbi Samuel Karff of Congregation Beth Israel will explore how religious leaders can teach and preach about divine healing in a lecture to Houston's annual Clergy Institute. 1/15/99.Photo: Carlos Antonio Rios, Staff / Houston Chronicle

Rabbi Samuel Karff of Congregation Beth Israel in his office, 1999. (Photo: Carlos Antonio Rios, Staff / Houston Chronicle)

“At the time, Rice did not have a Program in Jewish Studies,” said Matthias Henze, the Isla Carroll and Percy E. Turner Professor of Hebrew Bible and founding director of the program. “Rabbi Karff, together with Professor Kelber, laid the foundation for the creation of Rice’s Program in Jewish Studies in 2009. I have often told Sam during our lunches at Cohen House how immensely grateful we are for the important work he has done for Rice, but he was much too humble to take any credit.”

Karff was married for 57 years to Joan Mag Karff, who died in 2016. They are survived by three daughters: Rachel Karff Weissenstein, Amy Karff Halevy and Elizabeth Karff Kampf.

“My heart is broken,” Henze said. “We have lost a great faith leader, a powerful advocate for social justice, a strong Jewish voice and, above all, a delightful human being.”

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.