A Jew-by-choice, new Kol Shofar rabbi relishes outreach

Thursday, July 12, 2012 | by dan pine

On her first date with the man she wound up marrying, Susan Leider talked religion.

She had been raised Catholic in Long Beach, and had attended 12 years of Catholic school, but by the time she went on that date, she had begun to question her faith. Jeff opened the door to Judaism, and she strode right in.

Eventually, Leider not only converted but also became a rabbi, ordained in the Conservative movement.

Now she has begun her tenure at Congregation Kol Shofar, a 435-family synagogue in Tiburon, with her first Shabbat service there set for Friday, July 13. She is the synagogue’s first rabbi who also happens to be a Jew-by-choice.

Rabbi Susan Leider
Rabbi Susan Leider
Leider served as associate rabbi at Temple Beth Am, a Conservative congregation in Los Angeles, from 2006 through last month. Wanting to become a senior rabbi, she applied to only one synagogue — Kol Shofar.

“Kol Shofar has a unique set of amazing characteristics,” Leider said. “A warm and loving community [that] became apparent to me right away. An amazing approach to Conservative Judaism, preserving the tradition yet having the big-tent approach that I found so attractive.”

Leider brings a wealth of talents to the job, according to Karen Hirsch, Kol Shofar president. Chief among them: polished administrative skills, years as a Jewish educator and a passion for outreach to unaffiliated Jews and interfaith families.

Hirsch said Leider impressed Kol Shofar leaders with “her maturity, her spiritual depth, her personality and her character.”

As for her approach to congregational life, Leider said she remembers well “what it was like to walk into a synagogue and not understand Hebrew. So if there’s anything we can do to make people feel more comfortable — whether translating into English or contextualizing Jewish texts — I want to do that.”

She also notes that one of her favorite sermon topics is food.

“In L.A. I came to be known as the food rabbi,” Leider said. “I was very involved in trying to bring organic, kosher poultry and beef to the city.”

Having earned a master’s degree in vocal performance from U.C. Irvine, she can sing, too.

As Kol Shofar turns 50 this year, Leider will join forces with Rabbi Chai Levy, who has been at the synagogue for 10 years, including the last two as sole rabbi. A mother of a toddler, Levy will stay on as a part-time rabbi.

Leider is a mother as well, with two college-age daughters and a third in high school. She and Jeff, an executive at the Men’s Wearhouse, have been married for more than 20 years.

Leider studied for the rabbinate at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, but before that, she was highly involved in Jewish life, from working as an educator at Camp Ramah in Ojai to serving as the principal at Beth Am’s religious school, the Pressman Academy, in Los Angeles.

She also has ties to the Bay Area, having worked as a Jewish educator at Temple Emanu-El in San Jose, Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo and the Addison-Penzak JCC in Los Gatos.

As a Jew-by-choice, Leider has an affinity for outreach, both to unaffiliated Jews and to interfaith families, work she pursued at Beth Am.

“The work I’ve done in L.A. uniquely places me for that type of work,” Leider said. “How do you expand the big-tent approach while also being true to who we are as Conservative Jews? It’s about not being afraid to define who we are while still being welcoming.”

And then there’s the fact that Kol Shofar now has two female rabbis and a female president, something no other Conservative synagogue in America can boast. Said Rabbi Bill Lebeau of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, “I don’t know of any other congregation that has this configuration of leadership except Kol Shofar, and I think they are very blessed.”

Said Leider of that feminist milestone: “If not in Marin County, then where?”