Beth Els new rabbi hopes to raise consciousness

Michael Lezak, the new assistant rabbi of Peninsula Temple Beth El, is into the idea of raising consciousness. All kinds of consciousness. Of God. Of community. Of self.

And even of good chocolate and cheese.

It seems the rabbi brings to the Bay Area not just an elevated spiritual awareness, but an educated palate.

"There's great diversity in the Bay Area," Lezak said. "And food is a big part of it."

Setting aside Lezak's gastronomic interests, Alan Berg, the senior rabbi of the San Mateo Reform synagogue, praises Lezak as someone incorporating "classical rabbinical scholarship with warmth and a sense of humor."

Lezak, who is 30, was ordained at Hebrew Union College in New York this past spring.

In his new position, which he started over the summer, Lezak is in charge of religious education. He replaces Rabbi Evan Goodman, who now heads Congregation Beth Israel-Judea in San Francisco.

Lezak didn't come to the Bay Area alone, nor is he the only rabbi in his family. His wife, Rabbi Noa Rachael Kushner, is the new spiritual leader at Stanford Hillel.

Asked about some of the major influences in his spiritual life, Lezak, who grew up in Woodland Hills, cites his experiences at Camp Hesse-Kramer in Los Angeles as particularly memorable.

Lezak said his experiences at the Jewish youth camp enabled him to meet people for the first time who "looked at the social ills of the world through a Jewish lens, using Jewish tools to fix them"

"Issues such as environmental degradation and the unequal distribution of wealth — the hoarding of wealth by a select few — these were some of the issues that we grappled with," Lezak said. "And we were taught that it was an obligation as human beings, and certainly as Jews, that we could and should change things."

These are some of the lessons that Lezak hopes to impart to Beth El youth.

"It's about giving tzedakah. We are here in a world of desperate need of repair. It's a scary world that we're bringing our kids into. We're trying to instill in our congregation a sense of how incredibly blessed we are, and how we should be giving back."

The mitzvah of bikkur cholim, or visiting the sick, is another lesson Lezak wants to share with the congregation. Lezak mentions his work as an assistant chaplain at UCLA Medical Center as a pivotal time in his life, citing one patient in particular.

"Rita had breast cancer for the second or third time in her life," Lezak recalls. "She was clearly dying, and yet neither one of us spoke about death. Here I was, a rabbi, and I never addressed the question. I finally mustered the courage to ask her about it.

"She told me she was afraid for her sister, for the living. So we had given the fear a language. We had taken the fear out of silence and gave it a voice."

Lezak appreciates the opportunity to work with Jews around "life's most pivotal moments," such as the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, or b'nai mitzvah — all while teaching in what he considers one of the most "beautiful areas in the country."

And although Lezak considers himself an avid hiker and biker, he says that he has very limited knowledge of the renegade skateboarding techniques that are so popular among today's youth — even synagogue youth.

"You'll never catch me doing a nose grind on the half-pipe," Lezak said.