Rabbi Judy Shanks stands in the center of an unrolled Torah scroll on Simchat Torah at Temple Isaiah of Lafayette,
 (Photo/Courtesy Jen Boxerman)
Rabbi Judy Shanks stands in the center of an unrolled Torah scroll on Simchat Torah at Temple Isaiah of Lafayette, (Photo/Courtesy Jen Boxerman)

Next up for retiring Rabbi Judy Shanks? It’s a mystery (maybe)

Maybe she’ll write a murder mystery set in a synagogue. Or sing in the congregation’s choir. And she definitely plans on playing more tennis and spending lots of time with her young grandsons.

Rabbi Judy Shanks is retiring at Lafayette’s Temple Isaiah after more than a quarter-century in the pulpit, a tenure marked by community activism and the continuing fight for pay equality for women rabbis as well as leading the congregation with Rabbi Roberto Graetz.

A “Love, Legacy and L’Chaim” gala will be held Saturday, March 24, at the San Ramon Marriott to honor Shanks, who will be replaced on an interim basis by Rabbi Steven Chester.

The Temple Isaiah board on March 18 approved hiring Chester for one year to lead the congregation while a search committee seeks a new religious leader. Chester, rabbi emeritus of Oakland’s Temple Sinai, currently is serving on an interim basis at Temple Israel of Alameda.

Shanks was among the first wave of women rabbis ordained by the Reform movement. Women now are much more common on the bimah, and Shanks said the job is different in many other ways since she started at Temple Isaiah in 1992.

“The Jewish community has changed, in that it is less of a given that Jews will support synagogue life. It’s much more of an option for people than it ever was before, so we are constantly called upon to educate people to understand that without their continuous support we won’t be there,” she said.

“And we have so much to share, to make life full of meaning, sanity, growth, knowledge. You’re missing out if you’re not part of us.”

Shanks, 62, a native of Phoenix, was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1984 and then served for seven years as head rabbi at Temple Beth Hillel in Richmond. She also taught Jewish feminist history and thought at the University of San Francisco before joining Temple Isaiah. She and Graetz, who retired in 2016, became co-senior rabbis in 2008.

“What was it like? It was the greatest blessing a colleague can have, to find a partner who is also a teacher and a friend,” Graetz said via email from San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he now serves as a volunteer rabbi for two months each year. “To have worked side by side with her taught me what women brought to the rabbinate … a sense of proportion, of pacing oneself and being there for the community, friends and family in the right proportions.”

Being a woman rabbi now is “not the novelty it was” when she was ordained, Shanks said, though women in the pulpit still earn only about 75 percent of what their male counterparts make.

Rabbi Judy Shanks with Rabbi Roberto Graetz (Photo/Michael Fox Photography)
Rabbi Judy Shanks with Rabbi Roberto Graetz (Photo/Michael Fox Photography)

“We’ve brought so much women’s scholarship and an abundance of feminist thinking to theology and the liturgy. Judaism has changed radically because of women,” Shanks said. “But one of the clearest ways we haven’t progressed to where we need to be is that women are paid significantly less than men. It’s our livelihood — this is how we support our families.”

One of Shanks’ legacies is Neighbor-to-Neighbor, an interfaith group that has been bringing Jews, Christians and Muslims together for celebrations and social activism in Contra Costa County since 2010.

Jews and Christians circled a local mosque to provide support when Muslims were threatened. Christians and Muslims spoke out when Jewish institutions received bomb threats. And members of all three faiths join for Shabbat dinners and an annual picnic.

Terry Clark, an elder at Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church who helped found the group with Shanks, said the rabbi’s work helped members of all three faiths realize “we’ve got an awful lot more in common than we ever felt we did.”

“When something occurs in the community or around the world that impacts people, we come together,” said Clark, who is also president of the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County. “(Shanks) brings a passion and a real warmth and caring and love for all children of God, and a wonderful way of calmly approaching how we can deal with very difficult issues.”

Maram Bata of the San Ramon Valley Islamic Center said she’ll miss Shanks, then quickly realized the rabbi’s retirement does not mean she’ll stop her volunteer work.

“I probably will see her — she loves interfaith work,” Bata said. “She is very creative. She is wonderful, I really like her ideas and all she has done for the community.”

Indeed, Shanks plans to continue her interfaith efforts while deciding whether to write that murder mystery for which she has been taking notes over the years. She also plans to enjoy her role as rabbi emerita — a status she’ll share at Temple Isaiah with Graetz and Rabbi Shelley Waldenberg, who was senior rabbi from 1972 to 1991.

Maybe she’ll even join her husband, an Orinda psychiatrist, in the congregation’s choir.

“I’m grateful for the 26 years I’ve had here. My interests, my talents, my offerings to the congregation have been widely and happily accepted. I’ve gotten to pursue my passions and create change,” Shanks said.

“I want to see where God sends me next. I know there will be good work out there for me to do. It might be an extension of something I’ve done, or something new.”

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.