New Beth Israel-Judea rabbi a familiar Bay Area face

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Evan Goodman already had the job.

The new rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel-Judea in San Francisco, whose first official day at the office is Jan. 1, will replace the retiring Herbert Morris.

Stepping into Morris' shoes, however, didn't seem real until the two rabbis got together for a meeting over the summer.

It would have been easy for Goodman to be intimidated by Morris. After all, he had been the spiritual leader of the Conservative-Reform congregation since 1962 — before the 34-year-old Goodman was born.

"He's been with many people for generations," said Goodman, the associate rabbi at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo for the past five years.

"I want to be able to carry on the warmth, which is really Rabbi Morris' legacy. He's really been there for people and that's what being a rabbi is all about."

The visit began with Morris leading Goodman into the synagogue's cozy Fireside Room (renamed the Rabbi Herbert Morris Fireside Room this month).

Goodman thought they would be having an informal chat, but instead, the whole staff and temple president Estelle Goldstein were waiting in the room. They had a cake to welcome Goodman aboard, even though his official starting date was months away.

"It was pretty joyous," Goodman said.

The best moment came a little later, when Goodman, Goldstein, Morris and a couple of staff members continued the visit in Morris' office. "He insisted I sit in his seat," said Goodman. "I was really overwhelmed. I felt very proud and grateful at the same time."

Goodman, a native New Yorker who grew up in Los Altos, says he's winding down at Peninsula Temple Beth El, despite a 60-to 70-hour workweek.His primary responsibility there is running the rapidly growing religious school.

He said he has also been "working intensively" for about six months on Beth Israel-Judea matters to ease the transition in the new position.

Goodman's last day at the 670-family Peninsula Temple Beth El is Dec. 31, and he makes his debut at the 430-family Beth Israel-Judea the next day.

The Foster City resident has a wife, Lori, and two boys, Ilan, 5 and Noah, 3.

Talk about a balancing act.

"The biggest challenge is making time for family within the busy life of the congregation," he said. "A rabbi sets a model for what Jewish family life can be. A rabbi should be a family person and still be there for the congregation when they need me.

"It's important for me to live out the Jewish values that I teach," Goodman added. "I don't feel it's a burden. I act the way I would act, whether this was my calling or not. I consider myself an ethical person and someone people can trust."

Beth Israel-Judea's 13-member rabbinical search committee took its time finding Morris' successor, according to committee chair Jerome Field, a past board president of the congregation.

"We saw this undertaking as a historic activity," said Field, a member of Beth Israel-Judea for 25 years. "Everybody had a genuine feeling of responsibility. The decision would have a significant effect on the future life and character of the congregation."

Before an international search began, the committee held open meetings to get input from the congregation. Questionnaires were also distributed, featuring questions like, "What are you looking for in the new rabbi?"

The attribute synagogue members most often mentioned was "someone who would personally relate to them with warmth and support," Field said.

Apparently, Goodman qualified.

"It was essential that congregants felt they were part of the process," said Field. "Because it's their rabbi, not just the board's or the committee's rabbi."

When the board made its final decision in May, "they chose Evan by overwhelming majority," said Field. "He fits the congregation beautifully. His ease in relating to people came across and he related with a sense of humor throughout the process."

Goodman, who as a youth attended Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, referred to Beth Am Rabbi Emeritus Sidney Akselrad as an early mentor. "One of the things people love about him is that he's such a warm person," said Goodman. "And people have always felt that I'm someone who's approachable. My warmth comes through."

Ordained by Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1993, Goodman is clear about the traditions he plans to uphold at the synagogue on Brotherhood Way, as well as the new things he'll bring to the bimah.

A major goal is to continue the congregation's tradition of including elements of both Reform and Conservative Judaism.

"It presents a challenge," he said. "But it gives people different approaches to spirituality and prayer."

Goodman intends to bring his experience as an educator to his new leadership role, especially by creating more adult educational programs.

He's planning a series of courses from January to May, including Torah study and a five-session lecture and discussion series exploring what "liberal Judaism says about history, lifecycle, holidays, Israel and medical ethics," he said. "Providing a Jewish education brings Jewish values into people's lives in a more personal way."