Irrepressible Ari Cartun to retire after 40 years

June 30 will mark the end of an era for Congregation Etz Chayim in Palo Alto.

On that date, the 300-family nondenominational synagogue will say goodbye to the only full-time rabbi it has known since its founding in 1995. Rabbi Ari Cartun will retire from Etz Chayim after 19 years as its rabbi, following 21 momentous years as the Hillel at Stanford rabbi before that.

“He has brought an irrepressible energy to his work,” said Ellen Bob, Etz Chayim’s executive director, of the rabbi known as “Crazy Cartun” in rabbinical school.

Longtime friends and colleagues describe Cartun as an energetic leader whose love of learning and passion for music helped shape the direction and character of Etz Chayim over the course of his tenure.

“He’s a very charismatic guy,” said Elaine Moise, a former Stanford graduate student who met Cartun when he led Hillel. “If you walk into a room in which Ari is there, you will know that Ari is in the room.”

Cartun grew up in St. Louis, where he was involved in his temple’s youth group and became close to his congregation’s rabbi, Stan Garfein, who tutored him for his bar mitzvah. “Stan taught me that rabbis were normal people,” Cartun said.

A dedicated musician who started playing trombone in the fourth grade and served as his youth group’s song leader, Cartun found himself backing up Shlomo Carlebach on guitar several times when the legendary Reb Shlomo came to town to perform in the St. Louis area.

“I learned an awful lot from watching Shlomo do his thing,” said Cartun, 65. “I found I liked being Jewish with anybody who did it fun.”

Rabbi Ari Cartun through the years

Cartun was ordained a Reform rabbi through Hebrew Union College, but when he interviewed for congregational positions as he was graduating, he was disenchanted with synagogues that seemed to want to dictate how he would practice. Instead, he connected with Hillel and convinced the organization to send him to Stanford to replace the outgoing rabbi. He was 25 years old the day he arrived on campus.

“He made it really attractive for everybody to come and be involved,” Moise said.

Indeed, during Cartun’s tenure at Stanford, Hillel grew from a modest program to a large operation that involved student interns in every dorm, two program directors, and a full slate of classes and conversion students.

“I did the P.T. Barnum approach of doing things very publicly and very spectacularly in the middle of campus,” Cartun said. He brought a camel onto campus for Israel Independence Day and erected a huge sukkah out of a parachute, attaching it to the office of Stanford’s dean of students. “If there was a way to make it big, fun and splashy, I did it.”

By the time Cartun left Stanford, he was leading High Holy Day services for 4,000 people between two sets of services, sometimes packing the 1,700-seat Stanford Memorial Auditorium. But he was burnt out.

At the same time, Etz Chayim was just getting started with a small group of families. He agreed to come on as a quarter-time employee.

“We wanted to build what we called a participatory congregation, and so we wanted a rabbi there would be a lot of interaction with,” said Robert Berman, a member of one of the six founding families of Etz Chayim. “Our strong interest was for it to be a learning congregation.”

Cartun encouraged a do-it-yourself spirit at the synagogue, which grew to 275 families by the end of his fourth year, when he came on full time. Members learned to lead prayers, and parents of bar and bat mitzvah students attended classes alongside their children.

In 2004, Cartun leads a processional to a new home for previously nomadic Etz Chayim.

Music was an important focus of services, with Cartun, usually clad in a Hawaiian or Western shirt, always singing harmony. At the popular “Fifth Friday” services, held on the last Friday night in months that have five Fridays, Cartun would lead a special service with a band of congregants and a theme, including music of the Beatles or the Beach Boys. Many drew more than 100, 200 or even 300 people.

“Everything that I have tried to do as a rabbi is to get people to realize that Judaism is not done by rabbis. It’s done by Jews,” Cartun said.

Though he considers himself a liberal rabbi, Cartun has studied and davened in Orthodox and Conservative communities and was accepted into the Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbinical associations, appropriate for the rabbi of a transdenominational synagogue. “He’s supportive of Jews doing Jewish, whatever flavor they are,” Moise said.

Cartun’s immediate future includes putting the finishing touches on a book he is co-writing, titled “Mindware for a G0dwrestler,” in which he uses computer metaphors (and a zero in God’s name) to describe Judaism. He is also leading an Etz Chayim trip to Eastern Europe at the end of July. Chaim Koritzinsky, 41, a native of Madison, Wisconsin, will be taking over as the new rabbi.

At a recent weekend program honoring Cartun, Etz Chayim members organized a song night featuring music from the 1970s, and at the end, Cartun led the congregation in a rendition of “Guantanamera.”

The lyrics include the line “Yo soy un hombre sincero” (“I’m a sincere guy”).

“In some ways that really captures Ari,” Bob said.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a J. parenting columnist and former staff writer. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two sons.