Congregants, students, family, friends, and the readers of my oral history will be the final judges of my five-decade-long career. I look back, and I am mindful of a remark that Mark Twain once made, facing a large intimidating audience: “Homer’s dead, Shakespeare’s dead, and I myself am not feeling at all well.” Nevertheless, I have a responsibility to share some of my recollections to explain why my years of service to so many have been so rewarding.
Celebrants, mourners, students, some of whom have lost their way, and others who commemorated life’s outstanding moments have trusted me and allowed me to enter their private lives, a trust that was never betrayed. When I made a difference, people were quick to let me know and show their appreciation.
I was blessed to serve three very different communities: For five years, Temple Isaiah of Forest Hills, New York, an urban congregation with a diverse population of members, is where my rabbinical journey began. Before I arrived, the congregation had suffered a gradual decline due to problematic rabbinic leadership that resulted in a breakaway congregation. I was a young pup, and members embraced me, treated me like I was their son and grandson, and enabled me to revive and transform the congregation into a robust institution. At this juncture I began my studies for a PhD in Counselor Psychology at St. John’s University, recognizing that seminary training in counseling was woefully inadequate. I also began to teach in the Hebrew Union College’s teacher training program and in its “Add Life to Years” study program for retirees.
For sixteen years, I served Temple Sinai of Stamford Connecticut, a declining medium-sized suburban congregation in a city with large numbers of corporate headquarters and a sizable Jewish population. Many upper- and mid-level employees of these companies were in the leadership of the congregation. Within a year of my arrival, I completed my doctoral work and was invited to serve as an adjunct professor of human relations at the New York campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
I interviewed for Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco, the oldest Jewish congregation west of the Mississippi River, on Election Day, November, 1992, when President Clinton was the Democratic candidate for US President. The search committee asked me how I thought a rabbi, whose experience as a pulpit rabbi came from serving small- to medium-sized congregations, could make the adjustment to serving one of the largest congregations in the US. I responded, “It depends on whether you think a governor from a small state can be President of the United States,” and they never asked me that question again. I was elected the thirteenth rabbi of the congregation in almost 150 years. In preparation for the Congregation’s 150th year, seven years after my arrival, historian Fred Rosenbaum wrote Visions of Reform, dividing the book into chapters based on the service of each of its senior rabbis. The chapter devoted to my early service to the Congregation was entitled: “The Temple of the Open Door,” in recognition of the membership and management initiatives that I introduced that transformed the temple from a top-down clergy and senior-staff led congregation into a collaborative organization that resulted in huge membership growth from 1,400 households at the time of my arrival to 2,700 households by the time of my retirement. This was made possible by lay leaders who gave me carte blanch to initiate new programs including voluntary dues that enabled potential members to try out the congregation at little or no cost. Whenever I wanted something, the lay leaders who devoted themselves to governance and not management said, “Do what you want, Rabbi, It’s your congregation.” I had wonderful relationships with all of the presidents and lay leaders. In addition, I was able to carve out time to publish several books and numerous articles, poems, op-ed pieces, and reviews.
I take pride in the many programs that the lay leaders previously never permitted but now embraced, such as a Kol Nidrei Appeal to collect food for the needy and homeless—a total of 90,000 pounds by the time of my retirement. As senior rabbi emeritus and the Taube Emanu-El scholar, I continue to teach, participate in life cycle events programs such as “Chuppah and Beyond,” a series of six two-hour workshops for newly engaged and newly married couples. I serve at the behest of my wonderful successors Rabbis Beth and Jonathan Singer. In retirement, I continue to serve on nonprofit boards.
I have been blessed with a wonderful wife and children who always supported my career, even when my responsibilities interfered with family activities and celebrations, although my children would rather not have been in the public eye as much as they were because of my visibility. My wife is an Assyriologist and permanent lecturer at CAL Berkeley. I’ve often utilized Agatha Christie’s line about her archaeologist husband, Sir Max Mallowan, to describe the advantage of being married to a spouse who studies antiquities. Christie said that the best thing about being married to an archaeologist is that the older you get, the more interesting you become. My oral history housed in the University of California Oral History Collection is entitled Gratefully Yours, recognizing the gratitude that sums up my years of service.
Rabbi Stephen Pearce is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and more of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2022 in San Diego, March 27-30, 2022.