The members of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek have made Rabbi Elon Sunshine’s transition from Har Zion Congregation in Arizona relatively easy.
Not only are they knocking on his office door regularly to say hello, but they are also carrying out, on a rotational basis, one of his main tasks.
“Several congregants prepare d’var Torah sermons for Saturday morning services,” said Sunshine, who officially assumed the rabbi position July 1. He replaced Rabbi Michelle Fisher, whose contract expired and who has moved on to become the executive director of Hillel at MIT.
“There’s a real sense of participation and involvement,” Sunshine added, “and we have a lot to learn from each other’s experiences.”
Even with roughly 20 people on the schedule for writing d’var Torahs — which is nothing new for the Conservative synagogue — Sunshine, 40, will undoubtedly be busy fulfilling his vision for the 350 member families.
Helping those families feel connected to their Jewish community and traditions through study and learning is one aspect of that vision. Creating opportunities for social interaction among congregants is another.
To carry out his goals, Sunshine plans to initiate new programming, using what’s already in place as a starting-off point.
“People connect with a congregation for different reasons,” Sunshine acknowledged. “I can’t expect everyone to be involved in everything, and that’s why we have diverse programming opportunities.
“At B’nai Shalom, it’s not all rabbi-driven and rabbi-focused. I find that refreshing.”
A native of Phoenix, Sunshine grew up attending a Conservative synagogue and spending his summers at Camp Ramah. Both experiences helped him shape a “positive and engaged” Jewish identity, but he never considered taking that aspect of his life and turning it into a career.
While majoring in anthropology at U.C. Berkeley, Sunshine immersed himself in the local Jewish community through teaching at a religious school, tutoring local bar and bat mitzvah students and becoming a regular at Hillel.
As his college graduation day loomed, Sunshine realized his efforts to help people draw closer to their Jewish identity and traditions could translate into career as a rabbi. After all, “I was heading out into the real world and trying to decide what to do with myself,” he recalled.
That led Sunshine to Israel, where he studied at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. “Before I was going to pursue the rabbinate, I needed a year to really engage intensively in Jewish studies and get the bug out of my system. But it did just the opposite.”
Now bitten by the “bug,” Sunshine moved to Los Angeles, where he began studying for the rabbinate at the American Jewish University in Bel Air (then called the University of Judaism) while simultaneously working on a master’s degree in education.
His initial plan was to start in L.A. and complete his rabbinical studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. However, midway through his studies, the university opened the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. Sunshine would become a member of its first graduating class in 1999.
“We were the ‘guinea pigs’ and really involved in helping set the initial curriculum for the school,” Sunshine said. “We provided feedback to the administration and gave them guidance as we went through the program, which has evolved beautifully.”
Sunshine headed to Dallas to become associate rabbi at Congregation Shearith Israel. From there, he worked at several Jewish day schools in Seattle and Los Angeles before returning to Arizona to become an assistant rabbi at Har Zion in Scottsdale.
He currently lives in Walnut Creek with his three daughters, Arielle, 11, Maiya, 9 and Noa, 6.
“I’m looking forward to becoming embedded in the community and building close relationships with our congregants,” Sunshine said.
And who knows, you might just see him taking in a Cal football game.
“It’s possible,” he hinted, “it’s very possible.”