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Taking a bow: Rabbi Stephen Pearce retires after 20 years at Emanu-El

After a remarkable 20-year run, the Rabbi Stephen Pearce era at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El is drawing to a close. The synagogue’s senior rabbi takes his final bow at Shabbat services this weekend.

After that, he passes the yad to Jonathan and Beth Singer,  a married couple who have been serving a Seattle congregation. They will become Emanu-El’s co-senior rabbis starting in August.

Though he could have continued in his highly visible post, Pearce gave a simple explanation for his decision to step down.

“I’m 67,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 40 years. I love what I do, but it’s always best to leave when people say ‘Couldn’t you stay longer?’ rather than ‘Get out of here.’ It’s time for new adventures.”

Those adventures include writing and teaching, but he is determined to leave the spotlight as he takes on the emeritus role.

“There are people who retire but never leave, and never leave their successors alone,” he said. “I think for the first year I’m going to be very scarce around here, unless I sneak up to my new office on the fifth floor.”

Scarce or not, Pearce’s impact on the Bay Area Jewish and interfaith communities will not soon be forgotten.

During his tenure at the 163-year-old synagogue, he landed on Newsweek’s list of 50 Most Influential Rabbis three times. Major growth marked the Pearce years, with the synagogue’s member-households nearly doubling, from 1,400 when he started in 1993 to 2,100 today.

That adds up to some 7,000 individuals, more than any one rabbi could get to know. Thus Pearce is proud of Emanu-El’s associate rabbis, each of whom developed his or her own constituencies under Pearce’s tutelage.

“When I arrived here, the [associate rabbis] stayed from two to three years,” he recalled. “People would not connect with them. I said to the board, if you have really talented people, you should figure out a way to keep them.”

Emanu-El board president Steven Dinkelspiel noted, “Rabbi Pearce has been great at allowing rabbis under him to use different approaches in ways that enhance them and best serve the congregation.”

 

Rabbi Stephen Pearce walks to the stage at his May 11 farewell gala photo/drew altizer

One of those rabbis is Sydney Mintz, now in her 16th year on staff. The Chicago native was hired out of rabbinical school, and as an out lesbian, she wasn’t sure she could easily land a job in those more closeted days.

 

“He was adamant [about] looking for the best candidate,” she remembered. “That said a lot.”

Upon arriving in 1993, Pearce found Emanu-El “one of the bastions of classical Reform Judaism, with very little Hebrew. The rabbi and cantor preached and sung, while the congregation sat passively,” he said. “But it was clear the times were changing and people wanted more.”

In 2001, Mintz proposed a smaller, minyan-style contemporary worship Shabbat that might appeal to  younger Jews. Pearce turned Mintz loose.

“When I brought the model to him, he said, ‘Go for it. If it’s successful, we’ll keep doing it.’ He trusted my vision,” Mintz recalled. “The first service had 25 people; a couple of years later it was 500.”

Mintz’s colleague Jonathan Jaffe joined the clergy staff in 2006. He, too, has appreciated Pearce’s support, especially since he knows the hands-off style poses risks.

“Because if things blow up in our faces, that reflects poorly on the congregation,” Jaffe said. “Rabbi Pearce is famous internally for his positive feedback.”

Pearce, who holds a Ph.D. in counseling psychology, sought to make adult Jewish education a mainstay at Emanu-El. The synagogue’s Madeleine Haas Russell Institute of Jewish Learning, Emanu-El Scholar Classes and Tauber Jewish Studies Program, all instituted with Pearce’s oversight, achieved that aim.

Beyond the temple walls, the senior rabbi has been active in the interfaith community, working with pastors, priests and imams to promote tolerance.

“He takes seriously the lessons that Judaism provides about tikkun olam and looking after your brothers,” said Rita Semel, an Emanu-El congregant and longtime activist with the San Francisco Interfaith Council. “He was on the board of [the council]. We honored him at a prayer breakfast last year for his work.”

 

Rabbi Stephen Pearce test-drives an electric car on a trip to Israel.

Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, has known Pearce for decades. He “is held in high esteem not only within the Jewish community but also within the interfaith community, where he has built very strong relationships and where I have witnessed great respect for his intellect, humor and knowledge on countless occasions,” Kahn said.

 

The Brooklyn-born Pearce came to Emanu-El after serving two other congregations, one in Forest Hills, N.Y., the other in Stamford, Conn., where he lived for 14 years. He wasn’t looking to leave, but a Reform movement colleague kept pushing him to scope out Emanu-El.

Pearce finally relented. Once he took a closer look, he was impressed.

“In the past, I struggled with committees and getting things approved,” he recalled. “Here, it’s ‘What would you like to do? Go ahead and do it.’ The board members and lay leaders understand the difference between governance and management. They govern; they don’t manage.”

Perhaps his closest colleague over the years has been Cantor Roslyn Barak, now in her 27th year at Emanu-El. She met Pearce while studying for the cantorate years ago. She agrees with Mintz and Jaffe that Pearce’s management style is one of allowing others to shine.

“He always has a good word for me,” she said. “I believe he really appreciates my singing and my prayers, and he always let me know that. He trusted me to do something appropriate and tasteful.”

She said she’ll never forget the time Pearce showed up at her door to deliver chicken soup and apples while she was nursing a bad back.

Mintz similarly remembers Pearce pulling her off officiating a funeral because it was Mother’s Day.

“That gave me permission to say, yes, family is important,” Mintz noted. “We don’t always do the best job taking care of ourselves and our family. Here’s a senior rabbi saying ‘You’re a mom first.’ ”

Pearce considers himself a husband and father first, though he had always sought to preserve as much privacy as possible for his wife, Laurie, and their two grown children, Michael and Sarah.

Now he looks forward to spending more time with them. As he joked at his retirement gala a few weeks ago, referring to his wife (a noted scholar of ancient Assyria), “Being married to someone who studies archaeological artifacts … has an enormous advantage, because the older I get, the more interesting I become.”

 

on the cover
photo/joyce goldschmid
Rabbi Stephen Pearce

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Dan Pine

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