It isn't often that someone becomes a synagogue trustee before studying for the rabbinate. But Rabbi Charles Briskin found the experience invaluable.
"I really got a sense for myself as to how the lay leaders felt on many issues," said Briskin, 32, the new assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Briskin decided to take off five years to work in the Jewish community. He wanted to witness the challenges faced by a rabbi, and determine if he would really like the profession. During this time he became a member of the board of trustees at Temple Shalom in Newton, Mass., where his family has been active for more than 35 years. He also taught classes and worked with the youth group at his synagogue, and served as administrator of the Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel Foundation.
Briskin, who is a graduate of the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, was ordained earlier this year. He was installed Nov. 10 at Beth Am.
His ties with the Los Altos Hills Reform congregation go back to the years when his Newton synagogue and Beth Am were involved in an "Experimenting Education" program. Both congregations were studying ways to make their education programs more effective.
"Beth Am has a reputation that extends across the country," he said. "I was aware of it during the time we worked together on the education program. And recently I saw for myself the quality of programs offered, the innovative worship and the strength of the professional staff here."
His new position includes many experiences that are already familiar to him. He will be teaching seventh- and eight-graders as well as the confirmation class. He will also be involved with the junior and senior youth groups and the young family programs such as preschool and Tot Shabbat.
In addition to sharing rabbinic duties, services and lifecycle events with Beth Am's professional staff, including Senior Rabbi Janet Marder, he will be in charge of programming, lifecycle ceremonies and education for the synagogue's large emigre community.
"There are more than 220 congregants from the former Soviet Union," he said. "I will be the liaison to this community."
Briskin, who has interned at suburban congregations on Long Island, N.Y., in Southern California as well as at a tiny community in Juneau, Alaska, is now serving one of the Bay Area's largest congregations, with a membership of nearly 1,300 families and four rabbis on staff.
He said his "biggest challenge" at Beth Am "will be to involve this large and diverse community. I especially want to be a positive role model for youth, helping them to become literate Jews. I also hope to reach out to the young adults on the Peninsula. Beth Am means 'house of people,' and I want all people in the community to have access to active learning and worship here."
Rabbi Sheldon Marder, the former director of the rabbinical school and associate dean of HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, as well as the husband of Beth Am's senior rabbi, gave the sermon at Briskin's installation service. When Briskin was student, he supervised his field work and internships.
"Chuck brings tremendous warmth and caring, and I have been impressed by the respect that he has for each individual — a really profound respect — and a sense of purpose about what he does, a strength of character, commitment to social justice and social action," said Sheldon Marder, who is now the rabbi at the Jewish Home in San Fracisco. "His rabbinate is really built around his commitment to Torah, which I think is critical to his relationship to the congregation." Briskin now lives in Menlo Park with his wife, the former Karen Goldberg, a native of Foster City whom he met while he was at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, earning his master's degree while studying for the rabbinate. His wife now teaches third grade at Woodside Elementary School, and her parents continue to live in the area.
He acknowledges Rabbi David Whiman, formerly of Temple Shalom in Newton, as having a large influence on his decision to go into the rabbinate. "It was during my college sophomore year that I first thought about putting all my energy and passion for the Jewish community toward being a rabbi," he said.