Aptos rabbi celebrates 20 years of growth with Temple Beth El

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In 20 years as spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Aptos, Rabbi Richard M. Litvak has seen the synagogue grow from 70 to 525 families.

He has written his own Saturday-morning siddur (prayerbook).

His congregants have taken up a wide variety of social action activities with the local Latino community.

And the Reform congregation has moved from a 3,500-square-foot space on Santa Cruz's Bay Street to a new 18,000-square-foot sanctuary-community center in nearby Aptos.

Recently honored by his congregation with a dinner-dance celebration, Litvak is proud of those developments. But his most important accomplishment has been "to see the young people who grew up here forge a deep sense of Jewish identity from their knowledge of Judaism," he says.

"They have gone on to provide leadership throughout their college years and beyond.

"My biggest challenge has been for the synagogue to serve as a center for such a diverse community of secular and religious Jews. It has provided a dynamic creative tension maintaining both traditions, Reform and Conservative, through services."

Dubbed "Rabbi Rick" by congregants, Litvak first served at the former Santa Cruz synagogue in 1974-75 as a student rabbi, when there were 40 families. Upon graduation from Hebrew Union College in l977, he became the congregation's first full-time rabbi, and the first Hillel director at U.C. Santa Cruz. The congregation had formerly been lay-led.

During his tenure, the rabbi has seen many changes in the community, which includes retirees as well as students. The synagogue-community center offers a Twice Blessed Chavurah, reaching out to Jewish gay men and lesbians in the Santa Cruz area.

It conducts monthly senior activities and programs, sponsors a Jewish summer camp and a preschool, as well as teen programs.

In addition, the rabbi has rallied congregants on behalf of Jews from the former Soviet Union as well as for local concerns.

"Beth El has become a leader in social justice," says the father of two, adding that Mitzvah Day activities have helped cement relationships between the congregationa and segments of the larger community.

Members recently helped the Hispanic community of Beach Flats by painting and improving the area. In addition, members are now developing a "sister" relationship with the Spanish Community Center.

Other activities have included feeding the homeless through the Mazon Project and preparing bag lunches for homeless children.

Raised in St. Joseph, Mo., Litvak majored in religion and Jewish studies at Vassar College before attending seminary. In 1987 he earned a master's degree in marriage, family and child counseling and established a premarital counseling program at Beth El.

He and his wife, Nancy, a librarian at Santa Cruz High School, are the parents of daughters Jessica and Gwen.

A frequent lecturer, he teaches courses at U.C. Santa Cruz on religion, self and society and serves on the faculty of the Chesky Institute in the study of Judaism and Psychotherapy. He helped found the Santa Cruz chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews and currently serves on the board of the Bay Area Council of Jewish Rescue and Renewal and the Northern California branch of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

As for future goals, Litvak says, "I want to see Beth El keep the warm family feeling, with an emphasis on youth, enrichment and development of programs for our seniors also."

Congregants praise the rabbi's knowledge, warmth and humor, recalling that Litvak showed up at Purim dressed as a Dalmatian, complementing the cantor's Cruella De Ville costume.

"I find Rabbi Litvak to be a gem of a man," says Joel Zelin, Beth El president. "His compassion, sense of humor, outgoing personality and warmth are reflected throughout the temple." Alan Levin, longtime member and an area resident since 1958, has witnessed the congregation's transformation over nearly 40 years. He will become the congregation's next president.

"Rabbi Litvak has a great knack for having his congregants feel comfortable and a part of the community, whether they are Conservative or Reform," he says.

"He commands respect from all ages. I look forward to working with him when I begin my term."