Rabbis here, rabbis there, rabbis everywhere at Netivot Shalom

You’ve probably heard the old quip about “West Side Story” — how is it possible Tony plodded throughout Spanish Harlem bellowing “Maria!” yet only one girl looked out the window?

Closer to home, if Tony (or anyone else) ran into Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom and shouted “rabbi!” you can bet that more than one set of eyes would turn his way. The Conservative congregation boasts no fewer than 16 rabbis among its roughly 350 member households.

Stuart Kelman, the rabbi at Netivot (the pulpit rabbi, that is) admits that he has the staff at hand to open up his own yeshiva — “if I wanted to” (he doesn’t).

None of the other rabbis seem intent on opening a yeshiva, either. Most are happy to blend in with the rest of the congregants and take in a service.

“One of the things that’s wonderful is you aren’t always seen as ‘the rabbi,’ which is a large mantle to wear sometimes. You can be a member of the community, learn from others and not always be the point person,” said Rabbi Mimi Weisel, the rabbi-in-residence at San Francisco’s Jewish Community High School of the Bay and a Netivot congregant.

Adds Rabbi Dan Kohn, the head of Judaic studies at Contra Costa Jewish Day School, “It’s not like I advertise, ‘Hey, rabbi here!’ But people started to ask me to participate in the services. And I think that’s why rabbis are comfortable at Netivot. We are not put on the spot as rabbis.”

So, where are all these rabbis coming from? A lot may have to do with Kelman’s participatory and organic style; Kohn compares him to a “master of ceremonies.”

Kelman’s propensity to give the floor to members of the congregation necessitates a Jewishly knowledgeable membership. It’s a group that perceives rabbis as just so many more educated people. Kelman is also happy to let his large stable of rabbi-congregants deliver sermons.

“Some of the drashes are quite extraordinary. When you only do one or two a year, you really work on it,” affirms Rabbi SaraLeya Schley (aka Dr. Susan Schley during the work-week). “Anybody can give a drash on Shabbat and people usually sign up three months in advance.”

Schley also belongs to Berkeley’s Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel, as do a number of Netivot’s rabbis. And while most of Netivot’s rabbis are affiliated with the Conservative movement, it is an eclectic crew.

“We’re not all old men with beards,” quips Schley, who was ordained by the Jewish Renewal movement.

Rabbis also congregate at Netivot due to word of mouth — once you have a critical mass of rabbis, more are bound to join. And while it’s no Los Angeles, many rabbis call the Bay Area home, and only so many can find pulpit work. Those who can’t work at day schools, universities and organizations, but still have to go to synagogue.

If Netivot were an Orthodox shul, it wouldn’t be all that abnormal for a minyan of rabbis to attend services; many men attend yeshiva and are ordained before taking jobs outside the clergy. That’s not nearly as common among liberal Jews, but Netivot’s rabbi roster does include the aforementioned doctor as well as educators, counselors and retired people.

In fact, for many of Netivot’s rabbis, the response to “Why does your congregation have so many rabbis” is “You mean other congregations don’t?”

“One takes it for granted in our synagogue. We know a lot of rabbis here,” said Rabbi David Winston, a professor emeritus at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union. “Each of us contributes with their own expertise. I do Torah study and participate in the Tikkun L’Shavuot, staying up all night on Shavuot and studying Torah together.”

Other rabbis haven’t given the situation much thought.

“I like praying there. I tried other places and I like it there. It’s as simple as that,” replies Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man. “I enjoy davening there … I like sitting in the back of the congregation — I was up in front for many years.”

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.