Newsmaking Conservative rabbi returns to Bay Area

Fourteen years ago, Rabbi Leslie Alexander made headlines around the world when she became a fifth-generation rabbi, following in the footsteps of her father, Rabbi Ted Alexander of San Francisco's Conservative Congregation B'nai Emunah.

Three years later, she made news again as the first woman rabbi to serve a major Conservative synagogue in the United States. She was spiritual leader at the 1,000-plus member Congregation Adat Ari El in North Hollywood.

Now Leslie Alexander, 41, who grew up in Walnut Creek, has returned to the Bay Area to serve as program director at Saratoga's Congregation Beth David.

Her husband, Ken Aitchison, found an opportunity in Silicon Valley as director of technology at Novellus.

"My husband is a scientist in the aerospace industry, and scientific endeavors in the Los Angeles area have been withering in the last few years," she said. Because they had moved to the San Fernando Valley for her congregational position at Adat Ari El, they moved to the Bay Area "because it was his turn."

While shul shopping, Alexander called Beth David's Rabbi Daniel Pressman and discovered the synagogue had an opening for a program director.

"It was an amazing blessing because I was worried, after being in the active rabbinate on a full-time pulpit for 13 years," Alexander said. "I'm a professional and I was frightened about the prospect of not functioning in the rabbinate. It was coincidental…that we came to each other."

Pressman echoed her thoughts. After spending several years on a long-range strategic planning process, the congregation concluded that it needed a program director.

"We came up with a job description and qualities we were looking for and God sent us Rabbi Alexander," Pressman said.

He added that the synagogue originally had not intended the position to be full time and had not intended to hire a rabbi for the position. But Alexander "had the kind of experience and accomplishments that were ideal for us. We would not have found someone as qualified" as she is.

Alexander, who wanted to be a rabbi since she was 17, was ordained by the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College in 1983, after studying at the Conservative movement's University of Judaism in Los Angeles. The Conservative movement did not begin ordaining women until a year and a half later.

While Alexander attracted national attention as a female rabbi, her father points out yet another milestone. In 1984, he and his daughter led services together at B'nai Emunah.

"We were the first father-daughter team in the rabbinate," said Ted Alexander. "I know many father-and-son teams, but we were the first father-daughter team. I consider myself very blessed."

While happy to be a role model as a rabbi, Leslie Alexander is not comfortable about being admired simply on the basis of her gender.

"If someone pushed me to the wall and asked if I'm a feminist," she said, hesitating, "I would have to respond, `Yes.' But I'm interested in being a rabbi. I'm uninterested in clichés. I'm uninterested in strictly the women's movement.

"If I'm a role model, it's because I hope to be that as a rabbi. If a woman or young girl learns from that, I'm delighted by it, but it's not something I'm constantly stressing. I wanted to be a rabbi. A woman is just what I am."

While she initially attracted media attention with her first pulpit, Alexander said female rabbis are no longer a novelty. At Adat Ari El, she felt only acceptance.

"A bunch of articles were done on me all over the world," she said. "That was interesting and exciting. But my congregation, with the exception of a few people, accepted me from day one. I believe I'm accepted here. You go into life and do what you do."

Pressman praised Alexander's demeanor and ability to work with congregants. She has served Beth David since August.

"We wanted someone who could promote volunteer management and promote volunteering," he said. "She's attuned to that. We wanted someone with a strong Jewish background. She has a good way about her" and a good way of "presenting her ideals and herself."

As program director for a synagogue with 650 member families, Alexander said she works with almost every aspect of congregational life, including adult education, social action, religious programming, social programming, the men's club, sisterhood, high school groups, single young professional adults and seniors.

"It really is an across-the-board opportunity to create a program for the synagogue that lets people know they have the opportunity for a full-service community."

Since leaving home for UCLA in the early 1970s, Alexander is now living in the Bay Area for the first time in her adult life.

"It's an amazing reawakening," Alexander said. "There are more community resources than when I was a child. It would have been impossible to go to a day school that wasn't Orthodox, and now you can go to a Conservative or community Jewish day school. There are Jewish bookstores and places to buy Jewish things, and there is a more extensive Jewish community structure."

Her father is certainly happy she is back in the Bay Area. Ted Alexander says that now, instead of frequently hopping on planes to visit his only child and her family, he has to hold himself back from constantly hopping in the car to visit them.

Alexander's two young daughters — Shira, 8, and Aliza, 2 — are getting used to the change. Shira, who attends Yavna Day School in Los Gatos, is "adjusting to the fact that not everyone around her is Jewish, [as they were] in the San Fernando Valley."

Does Alexander hope her daughters will be sixth-generations rabbis?

"I'm hoping that they do something that is intellectually satisfying, and I hope they grow up to be proud and observant Jews," she said.

But Grandpa Ted has more specific ambitions.

"I've already determined that one of the two girls will be a rabbi," he said.