New Etz Chayim rabbi: Adios Chile, hola Palo Alto

Rabbi Chaim Koritzinsky’s adulthood has been one of celebrating Jewish life in far-flung locations.

For example, in his mid-20s he was a Jewish communal organizer in the former Soviet Union. And up through a couple of months ago, he had spent seven years in Santiago, Chile, where he helped launch an egalitarian synagogue and taught at a pluralistic Jewish day school.

Now, Koritzinsky, 41, has begun a more “at-home” chapter in his life as the new rabbi at Congregation Etz Chayim in Palo Alto. He has taken over for Rabbi Ari Cartun, who retired in June after 19 years at Etz Chayim.

Rabbi Chaim and Keren Koritzinsky and their children

A native of Madison, Wisconsin, who worked for nine years in the Jewish community in the Boston area, Koritzinsky has come to California directly from Chile, where he helped establish the country’s only “viable” progressive, egalitarian synagogue.

“Chile is basically a conservative, Catholic country, and the Jewish community is generally a bit more conservative, as well,” he says. “Our community was built [largely] for girls and women to be counted fully.”

That women could not only be “counted fully” but also rise to prominence in the Jewish community surprised not only some of the local Catholics, but some of Chile’s Jews, as well, Koritzinsky says.

“We were misunderstood in the beginning among some of the more traditional Jewish communities,” he recalls.

There are about 20,000 Jews in Chile, the third largest South American Jewish population behind Argentina and Brazil.

“[Santiago] is a small but very active community, with 10 synagogues, two Jewish day schools, a large JCC and many Jewish organizations,” he says. “Mostly the people are European — German, mostly — who came before and after World War II, and found a small, established community, mostly Sephardic, from places like Turkey.”

Koritzinsky grew up in the relatively small Jewish community of Madison, in a home he says was more culturally than religiously Jewish. His journey toward the rabbinate started at his bar mitzvah.

“One of the most impactful parts of studying for my bar mitzvah was sharing it with a Soviet ‘twin,’ ” he says. “We left an empty chair on the bimah representing the child in Russia unable to have a ceremony. That was very, very meaningful to me.”

In part, that led to him studying Russian when he attended Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, from 1992 to 1996, which in turn led him to Israel (where he trained Russian immigrants to lead Passover seders) and then to the former Soviet Union (at a time when efforts were being undertaken to revive Jewish life there).

“I felt like I was on the front lines of Jewish history,” he says of his time in Georgia, Ukraine and other parts of the former Soviet Union. “This reawakened in me a sense of how important Judaism could be to one’s life.”

Back in the United States, he landed in the Boston area, where he held down a number of positions in the Jewish community: teen justice leader, a guide who helped men reclaim traditional and creative uses of the mikvah and the coordinator of an interfaith dialogue group.

Rabbi Chaim Koritzinsky speaks at an anti-discrimination rally in Santiago, Chile in 2012.

During that time, having decided he wanted to become a rabbi, he enrolled at Hebrew College, which in 2003 became the first accredited college to launch a full-time pluralistic, nondenominational rabbinical program. Koritzinsky was a member of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College’s first graduating class, in 2008.

At that point, at age 34 and newly ordained, he was “looking for something different,” and he found it in an invitation to help build the emerging Communidad Ruaj Ami, which he calls the most liberal, progressive, egalitarian synagogue in Chile.

“I was there for seven years and grew the community [from six founding families] to 130 families,” Koritzinsky says. He taught more than 50 b’nai mitzvah students, helped radically increase attendance at Shabbat services, and crafted and led High Holy Day services that drew more than 500 people last year. He also taught at the Instituto Hebreo Pluralistic Jewish Day School and developed a Jewish studies curriculum for the older students.

While in Chile, he met and married his Israeli-born wife, Keren Heningman, and all three of the couple’s children were born there. But deep down, he knew he wasn’t meant to live out his days in South America.

“I always knew I would come back to the U.S., but I wanted the [Ruaj Ami] synagogue to be strong enough so I could pass leadership on to someone else,” he says. “And I wanted to know that there was something compelling to come back to.”

Enter: Etz Chayim.

“I wasn’t really actively looking. But all of a sudden this opportunity [job opening] flashed across my computer screen.”

Etz Chayim melds Reform and Conservative traditions, and also incorporates elements from other strains of Judaism — a mix that Koritzinsky says “spoke to me” (presumably in English, though he also is conversant in Hebrew, Spanish and Russian).

“It’s non-denominational but very committed to klal Yisrael, and that affected me,” he says. And on a visit, he found the synagogue and its members “warm and enticing” as well as “participatory and non-judgmental.

“So all those things drew me and I felt it could be a great match.”

So far, so good, he says.

“Every experience we have is a stepping stone to the next life stage,” he says. “I feel blessed to have had so many opportunities in so many parts of the world to experience the diversity of Jewish life — and to be able to bring that and appreciate that at Etz Chayim.”

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

A wife and mother of two grown sons, Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist, columnist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County."