New Temple Sinai rabbi eager to follow in big footsteps of Rabbi Steven Chester

The last time he lived in the Bay Area, Rabbi Andrew Straus rarely had time to visit Oakland.

That was back in the 1990s, when he served as rabbi for Burlingame’s Peninsula Temple Sholom. Now it’s all Oakland, all the time, for the newly appointed senior rabbi at Temple Sinai. And he couldn’t be more delighted.

“So far we’re really enjoying it,” said the Reform rabbi, who moved from Arizona to Oakland’s Montclair neighborhood a month ago. “This is an exciting opportunity to live in an area where you can actually walk to places.”

Straus, 50, knows he has a tough act to follow, with Sinai’s longtime senior rabbi Steven Chester having retired last month. There’s nothing in the manual about what to do when replacing a beloved rabbi, but if there were, Straus imagines, it would read: “Be very careful.”

“He is a mensch beyond mensches,” Straus said of Chester, adding that at his last post at Temple Emanuel in Tempe, Ariz., he succeeded the founding rabbi, who had been there 28 years. “I want to respect what [Chester] has done and the great community he has built,” he said.

Rabbi Andrew Straus

That means he will spend the next few months meeting with congregants, listening and learning about the synagogue and its 975 member families.

“It is a very healthy congregation,” Straus said. “I was excited by its commitment to constantly challenging itself to do better in every aspect of temple life. It’s not a congregation that rests on its laurels.”

In its search for a new rabbi, which began early last year, Temple Sinai considered nearly 30 qualified applicants. Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin, associate rabbi at Sinai since 2005, was not one of them since she chose not to apply, according to Paul Geduldig, the synagogue’s executive director.

Geduldig said the search committee felt an instant rapport with Straus. “He was easy to talk with, intelligent and articulate, but also down to earth and approachable,” Geduldig said. “He asked all the right questions, he knew how things work in a synagogue and he seemed like a Bay Area guy.”

The rabbi said his strengths include a love of teaching both adults and children, and commitment to social justice and diversity.

A native of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Straus grew up in a Conservative home. He earned a B.A. in history at Brandeis University, then went on to rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati.

Straus said he chose to attend the Reform seminary because, in part, the Conservative movement did not accept women into the rabbinate at that time (it does now).

His first post after ordination in 1987 was at Temple Beth Sholom in New York City. Two years later he came west to Burlingame and Peninsula Temple Sholom, where he said he spent “seven great years.”

Spending time and learning from the late PTS Rabbi Gerald Raiskin was the most gratifying aspect of his tenure there. “Every day before religious school he stood outside and welcomed kids as they came in,” Straus said. “I learned that from him.”

In 1998 Straus became head rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Tempe. While there, he helped the congregation membership grow by 30 percent, and the religious school by 20 percent. He is proud of his former congregation’s record on interfaith outreach, both with interfaith families within the congregation and in terms of connections with local Christian and Muslim communities.

Straus hopes to continue the same sort of work in Oakland, which should be easy given Temple Sinai’s history of social action.

Straus’s wife, Karen, is a graphic designer. The couple has three teenage children, the eldest of whom is spending the summer as a counselor-in-training at Camp Newman, a Jewish summer camp near Santa Rosa.

As for his rabbinic style, Straus said he tries to follow a simple guideline for pastoral counseling.

“When I’m in the rabbinic role, I try to be myself as best I can,” he said. “What I love about the rabbinate is I never know what the day is going to be. I usually plan one thing and end up doing five different things.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.