Bay Areas longest-serving rabbi steps down

When Rabbi Gordon Freeman first came to Walnut Creek’s Congregation B’nai Shalom, Lyndon Johnson was president, the Beatles were together and a gallon of gasoline cost a quarter.

LBJ, the Fab Four and cheap gas are all long gone, but Freeman has endured. Today he is Northern California’s senior rabbi, having served longer than anyone else in the region.

Sadly, all good things must come to an end. At the end of this month, Freeman officially steps down after 38 years on the job. At B’nai Shalom, organizers are planning a string of events — including a barbeque and a special Havdallah celebration — culminating in the Friday, June 30 sendoff.

Around the Conservative congregation, there is a lot of reflection going on, and more than few tears.

“It’s going to be an amazing adjustment for us,” says Dianne Fohrman who, with her husband Marty, has been a B’nai Shalom member for 40 years. “When you think about the history of this congregation, it’s his history.”

“It’s going to be hard no matter what,” adds Marc Dinkin, B’nai Shalom’s longtime cantor. “It will take a generation for people to separate themselves emotionally. He’s been their rabbi.”

Joe and Anita Hobesh of Walnut Creek have been at B’nai Shalom about as long as Freeman, and they remember well the early days of his tenure. “We found him very down to earth,” says Anita, “very ‘one of us.’ We’re going to miss him.”

Adds her husband, “Thanks to Gordon, you always felt you were welcome. His door was always open. We learned a lot from him.”

Freeman would say he learned just as much from his congregants. A San Francisco native, he was ordained in 1966, accepting an early post as an Air Force chaplain. When he came to the then-4-year-old B’nai Shalom in 1968, Walnut Creek consisted of little more than a walnut and a creek.

“Thirty-eight years ago there wasn’t much here,” he remembers. “Even the freeway wasn’t here. The congregation did not have a full-time person before me. I was rabbi, cantor, school principal and secretary. On Friday nights we met at the parish hall of the Episcopal church and on Saturday mornings in people’s homes.”

Despite the demands of being a full-time rabbi, Freeman went on to earn a doctorate in political science, with an emphasis on Jewish thought.

One year into his tenure, the congregation bought the five acres of land off Eckley Lane that the synagogue sits on today. The first major construction took place in 1972, with additions in 1983. Visitors to B’nai Shalom come away particularly impressed with the sanctuary, which features a pew-level bimah.

“The concept was Gordon Freeman’s,” says Marty Fohrman. “He wanted to be close to the congregation and not up high, so he made sure [the sanctuary]was like a theater-in-the-round.”

Of course, a congregation is far more than a building. And when it comes to the human touch, Freeman gets high marks from his congregants.

Says Marty Fohrman, “When he would talk to people, he was always intensely interested on a one-to-one basis.”

Adds his wife, Dianne, “He feels everyone is a teacher. There’s always a connection, because no matter what you do, it’s of interest to him. One of the reasons he’s a very real person is, he didn’t just preach.”

“There was some controversy with women coming to the bimah,” recalls Joe Hobesh of the debate that roiled Conservative Judaism in the 1970s. “But he felt we needed to incorporate women. He started that.”

Freeman is proud of his accomplishments during his tenure, especially his efforts to create a lay community expert in Jewish worship. “Over the years we learned together how to change the playing field so it was more horizontal,” he says. “We empowered the congregants to be able to read Torah, to daven, to teach the b’nai mitzvah kids. The idea is everyone should be a rabbi.”

The efforts paid off. Congregation B’nai Shalom was saluted by the Avi Chai Foundation as one of the 40 most creative synagogues in the country. “A lot we’ve done here has been recognized,” adds the rabbi.

This is hardly gold watch time for Freeman. Though leaving his rabbinical post, he has no plans to fully retire. “I knew the day was coming,” he says, “and I’ve been trying to process it for a long time. I have a lot of interests, so I’m not worried.”

Among those interests is a lifelong passion for Hebrew calligraphy, and he has several large-scale projects in progress. Another is writing, including his novelization of the Book of Judges.

And then there’s Project Numero Uno: his family. Gordon and Susan Freeman have four daughters — Sarah, Rachel, Elana and Eve — and seven grandchildren, spread out along the West Coast.

Freeman won’t necessarily hang up his robes forever. He still hopes to officiate at the occasional wedding. But even if he’s taking leave of the rabbi business, he’ll always be in the hearts of his B’nai Shalom congregants, and they in his.

“These are obviously long-term relationships,” he says. “I was granted the privilege of being in their lives.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.