Wayward career path leads rabbi to Alameda temple

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After moving to California in the early 1970s to pursue a doctorate in religion and humanistic studies, Rabbi Allen Bennett wanted nothing less than a divorce from the Jewish community.

In choosing to focus on his studies, he avoided high-powered jobs in Jewish institutions, pooh-poohed becoming the first openly gay rabbi in the country and scoffed at suggestions that he take a pulpit.

While he continued to resist such trappings in the years after graduate school, Bennett has wound up doing all those things — and without regrets, he says.

Most recently, he was named permanent rabbi of the Reform Temple Israel in Alameda. He had refused the first offer to apply there.

With his September installation, Bennett, 51, accepted his first permanent rabbinate since 1976, the year he was fired from the then-new Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, a gay-oriented synagogue in San Francisco.

"Someone had suggested that I should have [the Sha'ar Zahav job]," he said during an interview at Temple Israel. "I was retained for 3/8 time, then half time, then I got fired," only four months into the job.

"Something in the back of my mind said, `There's a message here — you never wanted to work for this congregation. You just got fired from it. If there was anything that reinforced what I didn't want to be doing with my life, that did."

The rabbi's real passion — hospital chaplaincy — for one reason or another always remained out of reach.

After having followed a wayward career path through the Bay Area Jewish community, Bennett said he's happy to drop anchor in Alameda for awhile.

"I was surprised at how second nature [rabbinical work] was," even though "I'm no stranger to Jewish liturgy. I go to services every week at [San Francisco's Congregation] Emanu-El. I read from 60 different prayer books at my house."

Yet in the year he has worked at Temple Israel as interim rabbi, congregants have come to expect more from Bennett than prayer and tell-it-straight sermons. He is known to crack jokes from the pulpit, talk about his "Star Trek" obsession and read poetry.

He also strives to accommodate both Reform and Conservative-oriented congregants by fusing traditional liturgy with elements of Reform practice. He does not require congregants to stand for the Sh'ma and pauses after "Barchu et Adonai hamvorach" for the more-traditional congregants' response "Baruch Adonai hamvorach l'olam va'ed." Hebrew is emphasized, but transliteration is usually available.

Synagogue President Judith Altschuler notes that Bennett's humor has made her once-indifferent husband enthusiastic about attending services.

"You always go away [from Bennett's services] not only feeling that you've learned something, but it's not dry. There's a lot of laughter going on. It's a very happy place," she said.

Bennett's plans for Temple Israel include new programs for the elderly, young couples and children as well as pushing interfaith relations and a social action agenda.

The rabbi kickstarted his agenda by publicly defending a non-Jewish gay man in Alameda whose home recently was vandalized.

Altschuler said she doesn't know of any families who are disgruntled about having a gay rabbi aboard.

"We've had the same rate of attrition as before. One might have expected that the older congregants might be a bit more conservative, but that hasn't been the case.

"They have been the most enthusiastic supporters."

But gay rabbis weren't always accepted. In fact, before the mid-1970s, all gay rabbis kept their sexual orientation separate from congregation life.

Bennett had never seriously entertained the idea until an acquaintance asked him to go public as part of a campaign against the Briggs Initiative. Backers of the measure were seeking to bar gay and lesbian teachers from schools. The rabbi was recruited by the activist friend to join the ranks of clergy who opposed the initiative.

The activist later changed his mind about the strategy, but by then the cat was out of the bag. A San Francisco Examiner reporter had interviewed Bennett and was poised to run a milestone rabbi-coming-out story.

They all agreed to wait until the election was over. The Briggs Initiative failed. The Examiner story ran. And, as Bennett tells it, no one seemed to care one way or another about a gay rabbi.

Even Bennett remained relatively unaffected.

"I was the same shmo, before and after.

"My gay and lesbian colleagues have told me how much they appreciate my coming out, that it blazed a trail for them. I don't know if that's true or not. I was the guy in front, so I never gave it a lot of thought."

Later, the president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis told him that his coming out had embarrassed the rabbinate, Bennett recalled.

The move certainly would have been a professional kiss of death for most rabbis in the 1970s. But Bennett said he had nothing to lose — he wasn't headed for the pulpit.

Other gay rabbis eventually came out. Many consulted with him before they did, though the phone calls have fallen off in recent years as gay and lesbian rabbis have become more accepted.

Bennett says he doesn't push a gay agenda through the ranks of the CCAR. In fact, he casts a suspicious eye on current efforts to approve Reform officiation of gay and lesbian weddings.

While he would be happy about official recognition of a gay ceremony, he believes that both endorsement and prohibition would create an unnecessary distinction between those who marry same-gender couples and those who don't.

"If you don't raise it as an issue, then no one gets tarred with the traitor's brush. Those of us who officiate will continue to do so as our conscience directs us."

Bennett also has worked at the S.F.-based American Jewish Congress as assistant director and later as executive director. He went on to become executive director for the East Bay Jewish Community Relations Council before it was disbanded.

At both agencies, Bennett said he discovered his passion for social action — "the prophetic side of Judaism" — as well as a knack for "turning [administrative] chaos into order."

Sitting behind tall mounds of papers and files on his desk at Temple Israel, he pointed out three distinct "piles of chaos" among them.

"Each pile has its own order. But if anyone shakes this desk," he joked, "it turns back into a primordial state."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.