At HUC-JIR, we thought that the road to a successful rabbinate began with an assistantship. During the placement period before ordination, I interviewed for several assistantships, but in each case was a runner-up. So, my first position was as the solo rabbi in a New Jersey “A” congregation. I didn’t have an experienced rabbi from whom to learn, nor a Temple administrator to guide me in dealing with a staff. In fact, I had no staff or even an office. For a while, my study was half of the dining room of our small rented apartment until the congregation completed construction on its building.
I recently received an email from one of my confirmands in that congregation with whom there had been no contact in the intervening years. Now a 60-something leader of the shul, she expressed what an impact I had had upon her as a fifteen-year-old girl. This is probably the greatest joy every rabbi has—the knowledge that rabbis touch people deeply, often without even being aware of the extent of our influence.
We might well have remained in that congregation had we not faced housing difficulties. We lived in three places in three years and were facing a fourth move when we learned of an opening in California. Robin—who has been my mainstay throughout—and I both grew up in Southern California and wanted to be near our family. So, we returned.
I learned a valuable lesson: geography is not a very good reason for a rabbi to choose a congregation. This was a troubled group. I was there to celebrate the temple’s bar mitzvah year—and I was rabbi number seven! They had already spun off two other congregations before I arrived! At the conclusion of my two-year contract, I suffered what too many of our colleagues have experienced—a professional dislocation.
At that point, we rented out our house, moved in with my in-laws together with our three children (number four came along later), Robin got a job, and I enrolled in law school. However, a lovely group of people decided to form a new congregation and asked me to serve as their rabbi. From September 1 to Simchat Torah, the membership grew from 31 to 99 households. I realized I could have a decisive role in giving shape and substance to this synagogue. So, I left law school and devoted myself to Congregation B’nai Tzedek for the next thirty-six years.
While I was synagogue-based, my involvements extended far beyond the walls of our shul. The first that I would mention is Interfaith Activities. I was a founder and past president of the Greater Huntington Beach Interfaith Council. I was an elected member of the Fountain Valley School Board, and following that served on the School District’s Personnel Commission for twenty-seven years. I was on our local hospital board, which I also chaired. I served on committees of the American Cancer Society, Alzheimer’s Association, and PBS.
In the Jewish community, I was a founder and past-president of the Bureau of Jewish Education and board member of Jewish Federation, Jewish Family Service, American Jewish Committee, and ADL.
A focus of my rabbinate has been outreach. I taught our community-wide Introduction to Judaism class for forty-one years and co-edited the curriculum that was used throughout North America. For over two decades, I was the rabbinic cochair of the Commission on Outreach, Membership, and Sacred Community. I am currently cochair of the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California.
For twelve years, I served on the CCAR Ethics Committee—six of those years as chair. I’ve been on the CCAR Board for two terms, including one as VP of Member Services. I am currently on the Ethics Process Review Committee.
In retirement, I remain active. I continue to mentor rabbinical students. I am doing a lot of Social Justice work, primarily through CLUE (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice).
Through all this, the person-to-person connections remain most meaningful.
Rabbi Stephen Einstein is Founding Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley, 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.