Lawrence Kushner to take post as Emanu-El scholar

Sometimes, things happen because someone was in the right place at the right time.

That's how Rabbi Stephen Pearce describes the fact that Congregation Emanu-El just became the first Reform synagogue in the country to hire a rabbi solely as a scholar and teacher for a period of several years. And with multiple books, media appearances and lectureships under his belt, he's not just a rabbi but a "world-class scholar," according to Pearce, the senior spiritual leader at the San Francisco synagogue.

It all started several months ago when Rabbi Lawrence Kushner was in the Bay Area for the naming of his newborn granddaughter Zella. The father of Stanford Hillel Rabbi Noa Kushner, Lawrence Kushner, along with wife Karen, has two adult sons who also live in the Bay Area: Zachary, a writer, and Lev, who is getting a master's in urban planning at U.C. Berkeley.

The author of 13 books, Lawrence Kushner has recently been rabbi-in-residence at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and is currently a faculty member of the Semester at Sea program.

An expert on Jewish mysticism and spirituality, Kushner is a regular commentator on National Public Radio and served as spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El in Sudbury, Mass., for 28 years.

Emanu-El's Rabbi Sydney Mintz was "the connector," said Pearce, as she is the one who initially made the shidduch.

She is a close friend of Noa Kushner's, and officiated at the baby-naming. At the reception, Lawrence Kushner said to Mintz, "I would love to figure out a way to come out here."

Mintz relayed the message to Pearce, who immediately got on the phone to his friend Kushner.

But it wasn't quite that simple. Together, Pearce and Kushner talked about creating a position in which Kushner would primarily teach but would also have time to work on his own writing.

"Rabbi Pearce presented me with a wonderful opportunity to help him create a new vision for what an older rabbi might do on the staff of a large and vibrant congregation like Emanu-El," said Kushner.

Pearce then talked about plans with Gary Cohn, Emanu-El's executive director, who agreed that Kushner would be a valuable asset. "We felt this was an opportunity for members of the congregation, as well as people in the Jewish and non-Jewish communities, to learn from a world-class scholar. This is obviously not a typical Reform rabbi. He has a very unusual record."

While a number of local synagogues and Jewish institutions have hired scholars-in-residence for a weekend or a couple of weeks, none of these stints involved long-term commitments.

Pearce consulted some colleagues and found that "there really was no precedent for it. There was no track record of anything like this to go on, to give us a way of doing this," he said.

He also discussed plans with Emanu-El's executive committee. Kushner flew out to meet members and give a presentation.

"Once we had their support and approval, it passed the board unanimously," said Pearce. "One of the remarkable things about Emanu-El is that the board is extra supportive of decisions of this nature, in helping to shape the future of the congregation."

Kushner's tenure as Emanu-El scholar, which will begin on July 1, will last for three years. While he will be called upon to help lead certain holiday services, he will be first and foremost a teacher. He will work with all age groups, from the very young, to b'nai mitzvah students, to those who come to the adult education programs. He will teach a monthly Shabbat afternoon program. He will teach business people over breakfast. And he will teach at a retreat for adults, among other things. The rest will be determined once he's here.

"What makes it so exciting is that it is deliberately very fluid at this point," said Kushner. "I'm looking forward to seeing what the community's interests are."

Pearce said the addition of Kushner to the Emanu-El staff will benefit all congregants. "He will be able to serve the community and congregants in ways that the rest of the rabbis aren't able to, because they're busy with other functions. We think it's going to enrich the lives of everyone who will come into contact with him."

Joking that he hopes he and his wife can afford a place to live in San Francisco, Kushner said this opportunity was an "irresistible offer."

"The job itself has been carefully designed to allow me the kind of time to continue a very active writing life as well as lecturing around the country," said Kushner. "It's a wonderful opportunity."

Pearce hopes that other congregations will follow suit. "I think this could be a new stage of congregational life in the country," as those "that can do it will find scholars readily available."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."