The truth must be known: Some of the Bay Area’s most highly respected rabbis enjoyed misbehaving in Hebrew school.
Rabbi Leslie Alexander, director of the Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley and the daughter of Rabbi Theodore Alexander, admits to causing frequent trouble around her father’s synagogue, Congregation B’nai Emunah in San Francisco, where he served for 38 years until retiring in 2006.
“I liked being bad,” says Alexander, 52. “Let’s just say some of my behavior was not ideal for the child of a rabbi.”
Alexander says she wanted nothing to do with Judaism as a young girl. She remembers scoffing at the way her parents scoured the house for Passover, and vowing never to observe the holiday in such a way.
Obviously, things have changed for her.
Rabbi Daniel Pressman, senior rabbi at Conservative Congregation Beth David in Saratoga and the son of Rabbi Jacob Pressman, recalls acting up with his friends during Hebrew High classes in Los Angeles.
Despite being the rabbi’s son, says Pressman, he was rarely picked out for his behavior; he was simply considered “one of the pack.”
Once a Hebrew school teacher scolded him during class. The rebuke didn’t deter him, and after finishing Hebrew High, he went so far as to “steal” his diploma.
At the end of his senior year, Pressman had to miss the Hebrew High graduation ceremony for counselor training. Luckily, a friend who worked in the synagogue’s office was able to swipe his diploma for him.
“I have a bootleg diploma,” Pressman jokes.
Pressman sums up what many rabbis’ kids — both those who became rabbis and the many who didn’t — express about growing up in the Jewish spotlight. “I didn’t try to be a star. For a lot of rabbis’ kids, I think we just want to be normal.”
Many rabbis’ kids, or “RKs” (a common abbreviation among the group), say their parents never placed pressure on them to act a certain way in front of the community. Indeed, they say their childhoods were relatively normal. The assumption that something extraordinary occurred in their households comes from congregants and other outsiders, they say.
“Rabbis and those in their family know that they’re just people,” says Rabbi Micah Citrin, associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, husband of Rabbi Karen Citrin of Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo, and the son of Rabbi Paul Citrin, who recently retired from Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego.
“Congregants don’t expect you to be normal,” says Micah Citrin, recalling congregants’ stupefied reactions when they saw his father grocery shopping.
Such congregant reactions were often at odds with those of family members. Alexander, the self-proclaimed troublemaker, recalls that her father treated her like any other misbehaving kid at synagogue — no more, no less.
“Once I was [at synagogue], he didn’t slam on me any more than the other kids,” Alexander remembers. “If people criticized me at religious school or shul, my father really made it very clear to them that it wasn’t okay for them to expect unusual behavior on the part of the child.”
Alexander’s own daughters, Shira, 19, and Aliza, 13, have exhibited some rebellious behavior of their own, she notes. “I roll my eyes and hope that I’ve stacked the deck enough to make them choose involved adult Jewish lives. The votes are out on what they’re going to do.”
Matt Albert, who recently stepped down as admissions director at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, says that it’s actually uncommon for RKs to become rabbis. Each year he sees only one or two RKs enrolled in the Reform seminary. Perhaps, he speculates, it’s because an RK knows what it’s really like to be a rabbi.
“There’s less of a wide-eyed naiveté about what the rabbinate is when it come to children of clergy.”
Daniel Pressman elaborates: “If you still want to do it knowing what you know, then there really must be a pretty deep connection to it.”
But the pressure to stick to a particular Jewish path can be particularly stressful for RKs.
Since her parents’ divorce 15 years ago, Penina Eilberg-Schwartz say she has struggled to define her relationship with Judaism. The daughter of Rabbi Amy Eilberg and Howard Schwartz, she explains that her parent’s split caused her to grow up in vastly different Jewish environments. With her mom, she attended services; with her dad, who left the rabbinate when she was a child, she wasn’t observant.
“I feel like when I make a decision [regarding Judaism], it upsets one of them and makes one of them happy,” says the 20-year-old who was a Kohn intern at j. this summer. “I don’t feel like I can just make a decision. It’s always connected to them.”
Although she has no interest in becoming a rabbi, she says she hasn’t ruled out the possibility of doing nonprofit work in the Jewish community.
For others, a Jewish path is more straightforward.
Leibl Ferris, 16, one of Rabbi Yehuda Ferris’ 10 children, loves being a rabbi’s son. His father, a Chabad rabbi in the East Bay, frequently welcomes guests into their home — and the teenager says he enjoys getting to know the visitors and explaining Jewish practices to them.
As a child, Leibl stood by the sink and showed guests how to say the hand-washing blessing; as he got older, he began participating in his father’s Talmud classes.
Does he want to follow in his father’s footsteps? He’s not ruling it out. “I would not mind being a rabbi,” he says.
Like Ferris, Rabbi Raphael Asher, Reform spiritual leader at Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek and the son of the late Rabbi Joseph Asher, says that people always identified him by his RK status.
When his family settled in Greensborough, N.C., Asher was a teenager who wore his RK title like a “badge of distinction.” But, he adds, it would have been nice to enjoy some anonymity on occasion.
He recalls that when his parents began allowing him to attend football games after Shabbat evening services, he always stood out in the bleachers dressed in his synagogue suit. “People knew that I wasn’t just there wearing jeans and drinking beer.”
For Asher, going into the rabbinate was, in effect, part of the “family business.” He is a seventh-generation rabbi on his father’s side.
Rabbi Daniel Weiner, son of Rabbi Martin Weiner, rabbi emeritus at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, remembers enjoying the status that came with being an RK. “There was something nice about being the first family of the congregation and to kind of be known,” he says. The 43-year-old now serves Temple De Hirsch Sinai in Seattle and Bellevue, Wash.
Karen Wiener, Martin Wiener’s wife, says she did all she could to shield her three children from the congregation’s gaze. “We made up our minds very early, before we even lived [in San Francisco], that we were going to do what we could to protect [them] from this rabbi’s-child thing as much as possible.”
Harsher than the spotlight for many RKs may have been the times their rabbi parents tended to synagogue needs rather than participate in family life. Though the offspring didn’t fault their parents for missing dinner for a funeral, for instance, they often still found it difficult.
When Amy Eilberg’s daughter Penina uttered her first sentence, “Bye-bye Ima shul,” the rabbi knew something had to change. Having her daughter’s early associations with her be ones of leaving for synagogue was troubling, to say the least.
“I was horrified,” she says.
So Eilberg left the pulpit in 1989, after just one year, and returned to hospice work.
Eilberg, the first female rabbi ordained in the Conservative movement, wrote an open letter to her synagogue regarding her decision. She explained that the demands of congregational life had forced her to “forfeit most of my evening and weekend time — the family time that is sacred to me.”
Most rabbis do find ways to juggle family and synagogue life.
Daniel Pressman notes that although it was hard when his dad sometimes missed his baseball games, he admired his father’s commitment to making time for his family.
Martin Weiner, meanwhile, hopes his rabbi-son doesn’t experience an all-consuming career. “I do worry about the fact that he is very much like me. He works too hard. He’s on call 24/7 and I think gives 150 percent. I sort of urge him to make sure he takes a day off. I’m really concerned that he takes time for his family.”
RKs, like most children, learn from their parents’ mistakes as well as their successes — and try to make sure they carve out a unique path in life.
Daniel Pressman did so by turning down his father’s job, which was offered to him when his dad retired after 35 years. “I said, ‘The answer is not no. The answer is, hell no,” Pressman says with a laugh.
“It’s a no-win. If I do well, [congregants will say] ‘Well, what do you expect?’ If I don’t do well, ‘Well, he’s not the man his father was.’ What I realized early on is that I didn’t have to be my dad. Nor should I.”
While they sometimes experienced the spotlight as children, Daniel Pressman and Micah Citrin agree they don’t find themselves living in their fathers’ shadows today. They say they enjoy their own careers and the choices they’ve made to distinguish themselves.
The Citrins says they plan to give their sons space to develop their own interests and identities separate from their synagogues. They have discussed sending their kids to Jewish day school rather than public school, and summer camp on the East Coast, so they can experience life outside the Bay Area and the “public sphere.”
As teenagers, many RKs rejected hints that they pursue the rabbinate. Whatever their ultimate choice, almost every RK interviewed says that everyone from relatives to complete strangers asked them whether they wanted to follow in their parent’s footsteps.
“It was annoying when I was growing up,” says Daniel Pressman. “Now it’s just funny.”
Furthermore, he says, “Once I got past my discomfort with doing something that my father had done, it really clicked as something that was right for me.”
Leslie Alexander had a similar epiphany.
“They never thought I’d become a rabbi,” she says of her parents. “I think my attitude changed after I’d been in [United Synagogue Youth] for a while and I realized that these aspects of Jewish life that were so important to my parents were not just important to my parents but also to people my own age.”
What about the next generation?
“Listen, if [my children] do anything in life that makes them happy, that’s a tribute to me as well,” says Daniel Pressman. “I don’t want their Jewish identity to be wrapped up in being a rabbi’s child.”