U. of Judaism dean to visit S.F. as rabbi, not a politico

Growing up in San Francisco, Rabbi Bradley Artson planned a career in politics.

He was an aide to Willie Brown for two years when the San Francisco mayor was state Assembly Speaker. He also interned in the offices of two Democratic politicians from California, Sens. Alan Cranston and Philip Burton.

But, he said, "I had always promised myself my family would come first. I could see Mr. Brown was out every evening, and at several events an evening."

So instead of going into politics, he became a rabbi.

Artson, who is now dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at Los Angeles' University of Judaism, will return to San Francisco for a talk at Congregation Beth Sholom on Nov. 28.

It was at the suggestion of his wife, Elana, now an assistant U.S. attorney, that he considered the rabbinate as a "way to build community, to mobilize people to do something about the issues they have to face."

He and Elana, whom he met at Harvard University Hillel, are the parents of 7-year-old twins, Jacob and Shira.

It was Brown, however, who best prepared him for the job: "He taught me how to move with the community, and how to get them to move along with you. And he taught me to blend idealism and realism. And he is an orator like no other."

After a brief tenure at an Orange County Conservative synagogue — "It was a touch difficult, yes" — Artson, 40, was named dean of the Ziegler School. The Conservative seminary, which he said offers a "forward-thinking, progressive" education, attracts many Bay Area residents.

Artson said that is because intense Jewish study is matched by a broad general education that enables them to become "agents of transformation, not just institutional leaders.

"Our learning has to be very broad," he said. "And we offer internships in various fields."

During his talk at Beth Sholom, Artson will look at how individuals can become agents of transformation. His topic is "What does God require of you? Spirit, heart, hands or mind?"

"We all feel pulled, commanded," he said. "We have that inner sense of being called, but we don't always know how to respond to the call. Many people of our generation have succeeded by society's measures of success. Then they wonder, 'Is this all there is?'"

He compared the search for spirituality to a hunger for art, adding that both require guidance.

"You can go to an art museum, look at great works, but if you don't possess an art literacy, it can be hard to understand the greatness that stands before you.'"

His rabbinical work enable him to give listeners "a vocabulary to make that visible."

Artson, who said he "grew up at Emanu-El" in San Francisco, left the Reform faith in college. However, he still attends an occasional Emanu-El service with his father, calling the experience "meditative and calm."

It's a sign of the times, he said, that many are "choosing their own Jewish path." A thirst for a spiritual home is increasing, he said.

"There is more seeking," he said. "These topics used to be taboo. Now I see people, kids, teachers, looking for it. There's a hole in the middle of our hearts that only God can fill."

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.