More than 100 people gathered online this week to honor all of the rabbis who serve the Bay Area Jewish community — and, more specifically, 21 rabbis who have served as presidents and directors of the Northern California Board of Rabbis over the years.
“It’s a pleasure to be in ‘Hollywood Squares’ with all of you,” said Danny Grossman, CEO of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, joking about the now-familiar look of a Zoom gathering. “Our partnership with the Board of Rabbis is because we recognize the core importance of rabbis to this community. You make our Jewish community and our world a better place.”
The 90-minute event on Nov. 15 was sponsored by a cross-section of Bay Area synagogues and organizations, including the Federation, the Jewish Community Relations Council, the S.F.-based Consulate General of Israel and this publication. Nine speakers took turns praising the Northern California Board of Rabbis, whose 300-odd members include a majority of local rabbis.
The multidenominational organization, with roots stretching back some 150 years, has a long history of partnering with Bay Area Jewish institutions to address issues of concern and serve as a bridge to non-Jewish communities. Founded at the time of the Gold Rush, the organization originally was called the Jewish Board of Ministers. The history page at norcalrabbis.org recalls how the board “responded to the needs of those in cults, Moonies, the Flower Children and other [non-Jewishly-affiliated] young people” in the 1960s and 1970s, and states emphatically how the board exemplifies “pluralism” and “sets a climate where cooperation, respect and collegiality prevail.”
The Board of Rabbis is the endorsing agency for Jewish chaplains in state prisons and other institutions, it offers information and referrals about Judaism and the Jewish community, and it sponsors events. It also aims to raise awareness on many issues, from access for the disabled to the laws of kashrut to the death penalty, serving “as a Jewish religious voice in the Jewish and general communities,” according to its website.
At the event, Shlomi Kofman, the S.F.-based consul general for Israel, reminisced about the trips to Israel (some of which he went on) that the board has organized for local rabbis. “I learned more than ever the strong commitment each of the rabbis and congregations have with Israel,” Kofman said. “Not always agreeing with everything, but what’s new? The relationship and connection will continue.”
Tye Gregory, JCRC’s executive director since June, cited many examples of collaboration between his organization and the board over time — from successfully fighting a proposed circumcision ban in San Francisco about 10 years ago to the current push to make sure the Jewish American story is included in a proposed ethnic studies curriculum for high school students. “The leadership you displayed, bringing congregations into [these fights], made all the difference,” Gregory said.
Rabbi Doug Kahn, a former JCRC executive director, was one of several speakers to praise Rabbi Malcolm Sparer, who died in April. Sparer, who led the board for several years in the 1980s, played key roles in the fight to save Soviet Jews and outreach to Christians, Kahn noted. “The work of the Board of Rabbis in the interfaith space was critically important,” Kahn said. “He set the tone of our cooperation for many years to come.”
Sparer also turned the board into a more serious body than it had ever been, said Rabbi Jacob Traub, who led Adath Israel in San Francisco for 38 years. Before Sparer, he said, the board would meet once a month to talk “about this or that. Nothing at all heavy.” After Sparer, each board president had to step up as “an activist.”
Sam Salkin, executive director of Sinai Memorial Chapel, praised what he sees as the Board of Rabbis’ strong interdenominational cooperation. “Your ability to be different from each other and at the same time be collaborators is a very unusual thing,” he said. “It’s important to recognize the collective leadership of the board. [It] has provided an essential part of the infrastructure of our community.”
Former board executive director Rabbi Marv Goodman used his time to praise Lisa Finkelstein, who serves as the board’s administrator. “She’s honest,” he said, “overly honest sometimes. She has helped hold us together these past several years. Where would we be without her? I guarantee our presidents don’t want to think about it.”
Rabbi Pam Frydman, a past president of the board, organized the event and co-hosted it with the current president, Rabbi Andrew Straus. The list of 20 of the honorees can be viewed here, while a tribute to fellow honoree Rabbi Sheldon Lewis, a past president of the board and rabbi emeritus of Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, can be viewed here.
The event ended with some shmoozing time among the participants and the rabbis, a welcome respite from months of pandemic-induced isolation.