My desire to become a rabbi after graduating from UCLA led me to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, Israel, and Cincinnati, and reached fruition when I was ordained in 1971. My love for Judaism in all its many aspects made me realize that the only way I could live and teach the values of our tradition, as well as become fully immersed in Jewish life, was by becoming a rabbi.
Where has it led?
I had the privilege of serving four congregations in my career: Temple Beth Israel in Jackson, Michigan; chaplain for the Jewish inmates of the state prison system of Michigan; Temple Israel in Stockton, California; and Temple Sinai in Oakland, California. In addition, after retirement in 2011, I became interim rabbi in three other congregations: Temple Beth Ora in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada; Temple Israel in Alameda California; and Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, California. All the congregations I served gave me a positive rabbinic experience, and I feel so fortunate to have served each of them. Each, in its own way, has helped form the rabbi I am today.
Some thoughts after fifty years in the rabbinate: to be a rabbi has been my privilege and joy. I feel privileged that I have become an intimate part of so many lives. I have become part of my congregants’ lives through joyous occasions: a B’rit Milah, a naming, a bar/bat mitzvah, or a wedding. I have become part of their lives at sad times: a serious illness or the death of a loved one. To be with my congregants at these times—to rejoice when they rejoiced, to offer comfort when they suffered—has been an awesome responsibility, an awesome privilege and a blessing for me. It was especially meaningful for me to train and officiate at b’nei mitzvah for those who had either severe physical or learning challenges.
I have had the privilege to have wonderful colleagues. The rabbis and cantors with whom I served in my forty years of congregational life made my rabbinate rich and fulfilling. Sharing with them, learning from them, studying with them, and sharing the bimah with them enhanced my life.
My fifty years has been full of many diverse experiences. I have served on various boards of both Jewish and non-Jewish organizations. I helped found an in-home hospice in Stockton, served on the board for a number of years, and became the grief and mourning counselor for the hospice. I taught Bible at Spring Arbor College near Jackson. I was privileged to be appointed an adjunct professor of Jewish Studies at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, teaching two classes there.
Leading congregational tours was an important part of my rabbinate. I led eight trips to Israel; two to Cuba; one each to Spain, Morocco, and Central Europe. In Oakland, I led a trip to the Gold Country of California where we visited cemeteries and other Jewish sites that were active during the Gold Rush.
The most important thing I learned in my fifty years of the rabbinate is that the great majority of people are basically good. They care about others, want to live a good life, and wish for a world of peace and justice. I also learned that the board of directors of a congregation are partners with me and not adversaries. We are both working for the same thing: to make a vibrant and vital congregation.
As I think about the future, I look forward to the time when we again can meet in person. I am now living in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic where all of our synagogue activities are virtual. I long for physical contact, for being together at Temple as a live community. I will continue to do life cycle events. Also, I plan to study, teach and travel.
I hope to live long enough to see our ten-year-old granddaughter become a bat mitzvah. I hope to see our country become united instead of divided.
I end with the following: My life has been blessed because I am a Jew, because I am a Reform Jew, and because I am a Reform rabbi. If I had to do all over again, I would do it in the exactly the same way. I feel so much gratitude for the fifty years I have served as a congregational rabbi.
Rabbi Steven Chester serves as Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Sinai in Oakland, California. He is celebrating 50 years in the Reform Rabbinate.
We look forward to celebrating 50- and 51-year rabbis when we come together online at CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, 2021. CCAR Convention 2021 will strengthen us spiritually, emotionally, and professionally, bringing us together at a time when we need it more than ever. CCAR rabbis can register here.