“You can’t always get what you want — but if you try sometimes, well you just might find, you get what you need.” So says Mick Jagger.
Rabbi Joel Zeff is inclined to agree.
Zeff, 57, is the spiritual leader at Kenesset Israel Torah Center in Sacramento. He also is enrolled in a pastoral counseling program at San Francisco Theological Seminary, a graduate school affiliated with Presbyterian Church (USA) in San Anselmo. And Zeff lives part of each year in Alon Shvut, a West Bank settlement 20 minutes south of Jerusalem.
“Everything is a trade-off, like Mick Jagger says,” Zeff said. “My life is complicated. What makes it unique is the Israel-America thing, living sequentially on both continents, and — for an Orthodox rabbi — this path of moving away from exclusive focus on Talmud text into areas of emotions.
“I’m being trained as the first Presbyterian Orthodox rabbi,” Zeff added with a laugh. “That’s all unusual.”
Zeff made aliyah 20 years ago with his family. His wife, Donna, lives in Israel, as do Zeff’s nine children, two sons-in-law, one daughter-in-law and nine grandchildren. Each year, Zeff spends the summer, the High Holy Days and several other weeks there. “While I’m with my family, I’m a digital rabbi,” he said. “I give classes over the Internet, do counseling over the Internet and retain my rabbinic presence over the Internet.”
In his 30-year career, Zeff has served as a congregational rabbi in Los Angeles as well as a dean and faculty member at two postgraduate institutions in Israel. After his academic position in Israel ended, Zeff accepted the job in Sacramento on a commuter basis in September 2012. He just signed a new two-year contract with Kenesset Israel, which serves about 60 members.
“Our community voted overwhelmingly to continue with Rabbi Zeff,” said Andy Rubin, co-president with Rick Weisberg at Kenesset Israel. “From the beginning, we realized and Rabbi Zeff realized that it’s important to have a Modern Orthodox community in Sacramento and a rabbi to put a face on that community. Rabbi Zeff is great at that. He has a very open, refreshing mind.”
Describing Zeff as “a great person and a real scholar,” Rubin added, “He is steeped in Judaism and Talmud, and in Jewish law, philosophy and history, but at the same time, he’s never been in an ivory tower. Rabbi Zeff is very much a man of whatever community he is dealing with. He is a pleasure to work with, talk with, even disagree with — though we usually agree.”
Along with the congregation, Rubin thought it was a wonderful idea for Zeff to enroll at San Francisco Theological Seminary. “For him to enhance his own experience in communal and pastoral work with a more formal approach that will multiply his effectiveness many fold — that’s great,” Rubin said.
In the fall of 2013, Zeff entered the three-year Doctor of Ministry program that offers special emphasis on pastoral care and counseling. “Orthodox rabbis get no training in counseling — it’s sink or swim — so the work I am doing in San Anselmo is completely new territory,” he said. Last year, Zeff took part in a hospital chaplaincy program at the Sutter Medical Center in Roseville. This year, he has an internship as a pastoral counselor at Jewish Family Service in Sacramento.
“Before enrolling at San Francisco Theological Seminary, I’d never sat and explored my inner psychological life with anyone other than my wife, but [recently] in class we were asked to compose in poetic form an expression of the worst crisis we had experienced,” Zeff said.
“Then we read our laments. It was a whole new world of being transparent, being more candid, less guarded and protective of inner privacy. As a result, on that Saturday in my sermon I used a story in Talmud to discuss the issue of codependence in addiction. I would never have done that before, would not have known the terms. Now people are approaching me and sharing personal issues. That’s exciting. And scary.”
Zeff grew up in Sacramento, raised in the Conservative stream, a member with his family of Mosaic Law Congregation. “My dad, Robert Zeff, a retired physician, is a prominent member of the Jewish community, a lay Jewish scholar in Sacramento. He is 90, and I’m riding on his coattails,” Zeff said. Zeff’s brother, Karl, a psychiatrist and retired army colonel, also lives in Sacramento and is actively involved in the Jewish community. Zeff has two sisters who live elsewhere.
What influenced Zeff’s decision to embrace Orthodox Judaism? When he was a pre-med student at U.C. Berkeley in the mid-’70s, Zeff had what he calls a metamorphosis in the sense of his Jewish identity. “Much of my motivation was the sense of this incredibly beautiful lifestyle, of values that are life-enhancing,” Zeff said.
“I wanted to educate Jews that they have this precious legacy and don’t always realize how rich and life-enhancing it is. I wanted to be a vehicle, to get people to appreciate that heritage and realize just how nurturing it is.”