New rabbi wants to fill Beth Sholom with learning

They didn't believe he could support a family on a paltry teacher's salary.

So by the time he celebrated his bar mitzvah, Manhoff decided to become a rabbi instead — one who focused primarily on teaching.

"I see myself as a teacher. That is what I think the role of rabbi is."

After spending nearly all his career so far at San Luis Obispo's Reform congregation, Manhoff took over the empty helm at Conservative Temple Beth Sholom in San Leandro in September.

He has a few obstacles to overcome in his new job.

Ordained as a Reform rabbi, Manhoff now finds himself leading a Conservative synagogue. He is also the synagogue's first rabbi since Ira Book was forced out in spring 1996. (See Page 2A.)

Manhoff believes the Reform-Conservative gulf can be easily bridged.

"While I'm committed to Reform theology, in my practice I am Conservative and not quite Orthodox," he said.

He and Barbara, his wife of 23 years, keep a strictly kosher home. And except for driving to synagogue, Manhoff said, he observes Shabbat restrictions.

"I was always on the traditional end of the Reform movement," said the father of three, whose eldest is now entering her junior year in college at Jerusalem's Hebrew University.

At the same time, Manhoff describes himself as "radically egalitarian." But he doesn't believe that will be a conflict at Beth Sholom, where Cantor Linda Hirschhorn served as spiritual leader for the past 1-1/2 years while the synagogue sought a new rabbi.

Manhoff also has agreed to apply for membership in the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly — which will give him a final stamp of approval.

As for stepping into Book's shoes, Manhoff said he is "really not worried about the past problems.

"I think the congregation is at a point where it's ready to accept me for my own merit, for who I am," he said of Beth Sholom, whose membership comprises nearly 200 households. "They will get to know me as a person."

He knows this process will take time.

"I don't think there is a way to make somebody trust you," he said.

Marvin Zinn, Beth Sholom's board president, said he was glad the long search for a rabbi was finally over.

"He is willing to learn. He is willing to accept criticism," Zinn said. "We like his maturity. We like his attitude."

Although Manhoff sees himself primarily as a teacher, he is also a perennial student.

He earned a bachelor's degree in religious studies from Yale in 1974. Before graduating from Hebrew Union College in 1979, he began postgraduate work in Middle Eastern language and literature at Columbia University.

Since 1992, he has been working on a doctorate in comparative religion at U.C. Santa Barbara.

A philologist, he is now writing his dissertation, titled "Semitic Idiom in the Synoptic Gospels and Related Jewish Literature."

In other words, he is studying Jewish words and phrases that were incorporated into the earliest sections of what became the Christian Bible. He asserts that Jesus' early followers in the first century C.E. understood the Jewish context, while later Christians reinterpreted these idioms and sometimes gave them entirely new meanings.

Manhoff became interested in the Jewish roots of Christianity when he read a rabbi's book on Jesus and halachah (Jewish law) years ago.

He later co-taught with a minister a class on Jewish teachings during the time of Jesus. At that point, he realized that one of the barriers to understanding between the two faiths was the interpretation of the words themselves.

After serving San Luis Obispo's Congregation Beth David for 15 years, Manhoff left the synagogue last year to pursue other interests and finish his doctorate.

Manhoff went on to create an institute for interfaith Bible study in San Luis Obispo and began co-hosting a weekly radio show there on the same topic.

He also served as Hillel director for California Polytechnic State University and Cuesta Community College, both in San Luis Obispo. And he continued as a part-time lecturer in the philosophy department at Cal Poly — something he had been doing since 1987.

Though he wasn't actively looking for another pulpit, he heard about Beth Sholom's search in June and decided to apply.

Manhoff, who now lives in Hayward, said he hopes to spread his beliefs here about the synagogue as house of study and the rabbi as teacher.

That means letting go of the idea of the synagogue as a social activities center and rabbi as a psychotherapist. Other Jewish agencies are better equipped to handle those functions, Manhoff said.

"I think that in the 21st century, synagogues will return to their roots and become…more involved in education and prayer," he said.

At Beth Sholom, he is instituting Torah study before Shabbat morning services. He also told his board of directors that he expects each of them to teach a course within the next year — "not necessarily Talmud," he said. But everyone has a niche, be it holiday cooking or Israeli politics.

But that's just a start.

"I want as much adult study as the walls of this synagogue can hold."