Camping trips, new Torah classes, backpacking retreats, discussions that connect agriculture to the Talmud and Jewish law, a cycling club — congregants at Kenesset Israel Torah Center in Sacramento can expect all that and more after Rabbi Garth Silberstein steps in as spiritual leader.
“In some ways, it feels easy to connect with God in the wilderness, and I hope to develop programming that helps bring Jews into nature, to merge Jewish learning and prayer with outdoor activities,” the 36-year-old Silberstein said in a recent phone interview from New York.
“We were looking for someone young and dynamic,” said Simone Monnier Clay, co-president of KI. “Rabbi Silberstein is a wonderful scholar and a wonderful person with an open personality, and he should be a good match. We hope he will attract young people who will boost our membership.” About 30 families belong to KI, an Orthodox synagogue.
Silberstein’s new job starts Sept. 1. Rabbi Joel Zeff, who came to KI in 2012, is moving at the end of July to Israel, where his family lives. Rabbi Moshe Unger of Chicago and his family will spend part of August at KI, his fourth time filling in there.
Silberstein said when he visited KI he was impressed by how active the congregation is. “The members are passionate about their community, and I believe in the power of small-scale community Judaism to transform lives and add meaning,” he said. “It will be exciting to work in a community already on board with that.”
Brought up in Davis in an interfaith family, Silberstein grew up attending Congregation Bet Haverim, a Reform synagogue. “We celebrated Shabbat every week and then we’d eat shrimp salad,” he said, laughing. “For a long time, I didn’t realize that was not typical.”
Silberstein headed east for college, enrolling at Bennington College in Vermont, where he took classes in acting, directing and playwriting. A science teacher there sparked Silberstein’s interest in evolutionary biology, and he spent three summers mapping stands of old-growth forests on the Upper Peninsula in Michigan.
After earning degrees in acting and biology, Silberstein moved to New York.
“My focus was on theater, but I never made a living as an actor. I worked as a waiter and did some temping to pay the bills,” he said. One temp gig evolved into a job as deputy executive director of a small nonprofit agency. Silberstein left to take a job in commercial real estate.
“In New York, I had encountered more traditional streams of Judaism and I wanted time to start looking for a spiritual community,” he said. He enrolled in Hebrew grammar classes, and then a friend invited him to visit an Orthodox synagogue.
“Much of what I found there was strange and caught me off guard, but I fell in love with what Shabbat meant to the Orthodox community, how the quality of the energy, the feeling in the room, shifted as Shabbat began,” Silberstein said. “I was also so impressed by the supportive, warm community. And strangers invited me for meals — that wasn’t something I had experienced in the liberal Jewish world.”
Eventually, Silberstein went through two conversion processes, one in New York and one in Israel.
In 2009, Silberstein studied at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He later held internships in New York, Maine and Massachusetts, and at the New York and Connecticut offices of Hazon, the Jewish environmental organization.
“Over time, I realized that the rabbinate matched a lot of what I was looking for in a career, one where I could be engaged intellectually in learning, teaching and building meaningful community,” he said. On June 8, Silberstein received his rabbinic ordination from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in the Bronx.
“My big hope, now that I am coming back to Northern California, is to find those people who at their core are seekers, people who want a life of meaning, want to connect with something bigger than themselves,” Silberstein said.
“I also want to find those who do not connect to a traditional organized religion as a place to do that seeking. Judaism has something to offer them, and I look forward to helping them discover and connect with the beauty and richness of Torah and Jewish tradition.”