Beth Abrahams new rabbi returning to Bay Area roots

In a modern-day application of the Socratic method, Rabbi Mark Bloom turned the tables on Congregation Beth Abraham's rabbi search committee.

While answering questions from members of the Conservative Oakland congregation, the San Mateo native reversed fields, and began questioning his questioners.

"He asked our group what brought us to Judaism and what brought us to this synagogue," recalled Sandy Margolin, chair of the search committee. "It was wonderful. He had us all talking about it, and I think we learned things about each other that had not come out before."

Bloom's energetic, innovative and bold approach won over the search committee, and, last month, he agreed to fill Beth Abraham's long-standing rabbinical vacancy.

The congregation had originally opted to stay in-house, naming interim Rabbi Jerry Danzig to the post in December. When the septuagenarian Danzig recently bowed out of the process, however, the congregation immediately turned its attention back to Bloom.

"It was a little shocking. And it was difficult — I had sort of already given up on it," said Bloom, a rabbi at Congregation Torat Yisrael in Cranston, R.I., for the past three years. "But, thinking about it again, that's what made it beshert. There were a lot of reasons we weren't getting together, but it kept coming up that we should be together."

In addition to allowing him a much-desired escape from the East Coast to his native Bay Area, Bloom was strongly attracted by Beth Abraham. He complimented its friendly, "haimish" atmosphere, and praised it as a bastion of "West Coast Conservatism."

"It's fully in the Conservative movement with the emphasis on traditionalism and halachah being important," said Bloom, who will ascend Beth Abraham's bimah in early July. "Services are often more vibrant, and there's a greater understanding of nontraditional families. Those are the biggies."

Growing up on the Peninsula, Bloom attended Reform Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo, and Conservative-Reform Congregation Beth Israel-Judea in San Francisco.

After graduating from Northwestern University in 1988 with a Master's in communication studies, Bloom returned to the Bay Area for a string of marketing and advertising jobs. He also worked at Reform Temple Beth Torah in Fremont as a song leader and cantor, sometimes leading services when Rabbi Steven Kaplan went on sabbatical.

While Judaism always played a big role in his life, Bloom eventually decided to pursue it professionally. He attended the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, where he was ordained in 1995 and won the Cora Kahn Prize for outstanding preaching skills.

Bloom's first pulpit position took him to Sydney, Australia, where he served Reform-Conservative Congregation Emanuel. Returning stateside three years ago, he knew that he wanted to lead a Conservative congregation.

"Judaism was always more important to me than Reform Judaism, but since I had grown up Reform, that's what I knew," said Bloom. "Throughout rabbinical school and afterward, I gradually became a Conservative rabbi."

Bloom's road to the Conservative pulpit isn't his only unconventional element. During a pair of "audition" services at Beth Abraham last year, the 34-year-old rabbi raised eyebrows by serving as both rabbi and cantor and, when reading the Sh'ma from the Torah, inviting everyone present to ascend the bimah and observe the unique lettering.

"The ayin and daled are enlarged," he explained. "There are several reasons for that — among them is that if you take those two letters out, it spells eid, which means witness.

"That makes us all witnesses, anyone who reads the Torah down to today. I want everyone to see that, to physically make the connection with the Torah."

The unusual move caught the attention of Beth Abraham's congregants.

"That really impressed me," said Beth Abraham board member Rick Heeger "He came to a place where he didn't know the people and didn't know what to expect, and all a sudden he invites everyone to come up to the bimah. I thought that was a pretty gutsy thing to do. It impressed a lot of people."

Bloom and his wife, Karen, have a 1-year-old son, Micah. A great lover of children, Bloom is the author of the book, "Out of the Mouths of Babes," a collection of wisdom he's "learned from children" about Judaism.

Accordingly, both Bloom and Beth Abraham's board members expect the new rabbi to play an active role in the congregation's nursery school.

"I expect to be in the classrooms, teaching them songs, playing with the children and helping kids make the connection to Judaism," Bloom said. "Nursery school students are welcome at services."

Beth Abraham's board is also betting that the energetic rabbi will appeal to young families.

"I think this will be a very good match," said Bloom. "There are always struggles with every congregation, but this has seemed very right to me all along."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a columnist at Mission Local. He is also former editor-at-large at San Francisco Magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.