I grew up in a loving Orthodox family in Boston. When I was 9 years old, my world changed. I was playing in the streets with an African-American friend at my grandparents’ home in Roxbury. Someone came running down the street, shouting racial slurs in filthy language against my friend. Scared, I ran into my grandparents’s house. My father took off after the person.
At 9, I knew something was wrong in the world. I didn’t discern it all. I went to my Rabbi. After I left him, I decided I wanted to become a Rabbi and do something with my life to overcome hatred and prejudice.
At 13, I tried with a lifeguard to save a 9-year old from drowning in Maine. After he was rushed to the hospital, he was pronounced dead. One of the doctors said to me, “Don’t worry, God wanted another young person up there.” Right then, I stopped believing in God. In time, I came to believe in Godliness is how we treat one another. The only option for me was to become a Reform Liberal Rabbi, the best decision of my life.
In the 1960s, I was drawn to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Reverend Jesse Jackson. I opposed the Vietnam War and marched with them. I was drawn to suffering and those who had virtually no voice. I went to Moscow to meet, assist, and sponsor Soviet Jews.
When I served in Miami as an assistant Rabbi, I met with gay individuals and preached a sermon in 1968, ” The Jewish Community and the Homosexual ” It opened a door, though there were many threats against the sermon. I have never stopped passionately supporting the LGBT community.
When Saigon fell, I traveled to Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia and met with refugees. Rabbi Erwin Herman and I traveled with Vice President Walter Mondale to Geneva to assist with Vietnamese refugee resettlement. The Boat People became our people. Our own Boat People were on the St. Louis. We went to Camp Pendleton, where I took in a family to my home. We resettled 13 families at Temple Judea in Tarzana. Rabbi Herman and I, with the support of Rabbi Alex Schindler and the UHAC, traveled the country to meet with our colleagues and assist them in resettling Vietnamese refugees in our Reform Congregation.
I traveled with Reverend Jesse Jackson, joining him in his quest for greater involvement in civil rights and human rights. I joined him to speak at the 25th memorial service in Philadelphia, Mississippi in memory of Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney. I traveled throughout the Middle East with Rev. Jackson, meeting with Yasser Arafat, Bashar al-Assad, and leaders of Israel and Lebanon supporting peace efforts. Our interfaith group went to Belgrade, Yugoslavia, to meet with Slobodan Milosevic to free the 3 American POWs. We brought them home. Our interfaith work continues, more important today than ever as Muslims, Sikhs, and other communities are the target of hatred in America.
The road not taken. Being ordained a Rabbi 50 years ago has opened my world as a passionate, liberal Jew to make a difference. I am blessed to have been a dreamer and realized those dreams as a Rabbi. Never could I have imagined a life that has so fulfilled me. No other profession could have prepared me to travel on the Road Not Taken. The journey continues.
Today, I pursue my civil rights and human rights work with my wife, California State Controller Betty Yee, in pursuit of economic equality for all.
I thank the Hebrew Union College, Temple Israel of Greater Miami, Temple Judea in Tarzana, Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, and my teachers, students, and colleagues.
Rabbi Steven B. Jacobs is celebrating 50 years in the reform rabbinate.