Former Hillel director is giving the pulpit another try

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The fledgling, 30-household independent congregation is a far cry from the larger synagogues where he interviewed after graduating. Some announced restrictions on Cartun's behavior and thus, led him to Hillel.

"One [Reform] synagogue wouldn't let me wear a kippah on the pulpit. Another wanted me to do intermarriages. I wasn't happy with the options," Cartun said of his post-graduation interviews. This time, "I know the people. They're good Jews, committed and excited about their congregation."

Cartun, 46, who served at Stanford for 21 years, developed an active, thriving Jewish community there. He retired earlier this year to pursue other interests — among them Etz Chayim, which formed in March of 1995.

Most Etz Chayim members broke away from established synagogues in a quest for a smaller, more intimate Jewish experience. Plus, they were eager to start an intergenerational education program.

The congregation boasts a family education program for younger children and their parents and Hebrew classes for grades four through seven. Next on the agenda is an adult education program.

According to Etz Chayim President Michael Vinson, "This has been the most difficult piece for us to get going. Ari can immediately step in and give us that component. He will serve us as a rabbi and a scholar in residence."

And Cartun embraces the role of educator.

"I try to teach something basic and advanced at the same time. Always," he said. "I use the image of Jacob's ladder to heaven. One of the interpretations I've heard, which I use, is that the angels going up and down the ladder represent the stages in being a Jew. We're always going up and down the ladder.

"Judaism isn't a room or a suit of clothes. The ladder, you're never all on. It's step by step. My primary role is to encourage Jews to get on that ladder."

Determined to create a synagogue that meets their needs, the members of Etz Chayim are climbing the rungs. And Cartun is no stranger to their progress.

Even before his arrival, the congregation had been using a prayerbook Cartun wrote. Each page contains three columns — Hebrew, English and transliteration.

"Before I knew Hebrew I felt at a loss in services. And the transliteration in the back made me feel stupid. This is one more way to welcome people," he said.

In addition, last fall when the congregation celebrated its first bat mitzvah, Cartun officiated at the service. He looks forward to the semipermanent role that allows him more time to spend with congregants — especially with children.

A father of four daughters, ages 4 to 10, Cartun "felt rueful on High Holy Days seeing so many young children at Hillel.

"I knew they wouldn't get a Jewish education. Their annual experience was coming to the bimah during the Torah service. I was happy to provide that for them, but at the same time sad I couldn't do more."

But at Etz Chayim, "Children are running around in the courtyard playing with each other on Shabbat and the hallway is buzzing with people meeting one another. At Hillel we had terrific attendance at Shabbat dinners, but only 15 to 20 at services. We were never able to sustain a minyan. But here? Wow. Bang."

Meanwhile, Cartun and his wife, Joy, remain members at Conservative Congregation Kol Emeth and Reconstructionist Keddem Congregation, both in Palo Alto.

"It's allowed," he said, adding "As a Hillel director it made sense to be everything I could be. Now I'm serving a Reform [oriented] congregation. So I'm a member of three [synagogues].

"I don't define myself denominationally. I'm more interested in being an excited Jew and part of a learning community."