L.A. board of rabbis mines a Diamond from Oakland

"Ask a Rabbi" is going Hollywood.

Rabbi Mark Diamond, who runs the popular AOL question-and-answer service, is leaving Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland to become the executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

A special Shabbat service at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, July 15 will end Diamond's nine years at Beth Abraham, a Conservative synagogue overlooking Highway 580 near the Grand Avenue exit.

"He's going to be greatly missed," said Herman "Pinky" Pencovic, a past Beth Abraham president and current chairman of the synagogue's board of trustees. "It's a big loss for us."

The Chicago-born rabbi, 45, sees the new position as something of a return to his roots. In the 1970s, before he was ordained, he "shlepped around the Midwest," trying to raise money as a United Jewish Appeal field worker.

"It feels like I'm coming home after 25 years," Diamond said of his return to the field of Jewish communal service.

"It's certainly a mix of emotions, though. I've been in the pulpit for 18 years and served some wonderful congregations, including a terrific community here in Oakland."

Diamond admitted, however, that it will be nice to break away from the responsibilities of a synagogue rabbi. "The demands of the pulpit are many and varied," he said.

"I'll be working hard in L.A., but at least I'll be able to spend Shabbat and holidays with my family."

From his Wilshire Boulevard office, "Rabbi Mark," as he prefers to be called, will answer to about 250 rabbis, representing all facets of Judaism, throughout Southern California.

He will be replacing San Francisco native Rabbi Brad Artson, who left to become dean of the University of Judaism's Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.

Diamond was president of the 35-member East Bay Council of Rabbis from 1993 to 1994, but that post pales in comparison to his new job, which he will start Aug. 1.

"Keeping everyone happy is definitely going to be one of my challenges," he said. "But based on my experience in Oakland and my experience with 'Ask a Rabbi,' I think I set a tone of being welcoming and accepting of many different streams of Jewish thought and identity."

The Jewish population of Southern California is 600,000, Diamond said, making it the second-largest community in the country behind New York.

"You can find everything there," said Diamond, who will live in Encino with his wife, Lois, and three children, Adina, Ariella and Jeremy. "There is a stronger traditional and observant culture there, plus the infrastructure that makes Jewish life easier: kosher butchers and kosher restaurants in greater abundance" than in the Bay Area.

"But on the other hand, demographics is a great challenge. The community is so spread out."

Diamond said attendance at monthly board of rabbis meetings in Southern California has left a lot to be desired. He aims to change that.

The board essentially functions as the religious arm of the Jewish community, offering information, referral services and education.

In addition to serving as an administrator, the executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California holds one of 12 seats on the senior management committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles — a role his Northern California counterpart does not have.

John Fishel, the president of the L.A. federation, said the post creates "a synergy between the federation and the synagogue community."

He said Diamond was hired because "he has a good vision of how the rabbinic community and the synagogue community can work with our federation. He has the right personality to work with a diverse group."

Much loved by his congregants at Beth Abraham, the warm and funny Diamond also gained attention in the last decade for his liberal stances.

Last year, he condemned the Rabbinical Assembly, the 1,500-member international association of Conservative rabbis, for not addressing the ordination of gays and lesbians.

He also voiced his dissent whenever the movement reaffirmed its conservative stance on homosexuality and premarital sex. In addition, he has taken cutting-edge positions on interfaith issues and religious pluralism in Israel.

"The congregation was always behind him, 100 percent," said Sid Shaffer, Beth Abraham's president from 1971 to 1972.

But perhaps Diamond's best attribute, according to Shaffer: "He was always on time. Not one minute before and not one minute after. And don't think I didn't appreciate that."

Diamond, for whom no replacement has yet been hired, said although membership has remained steady, with around 300 households, the 93-year-old Beth Abraham has changed during his time there.

"Not that I take credit for it, but we now have an increased number of families with younger children," Diamond said. "I'm very pleased when I look at the membership, an extraordinary diversity of people," including interfaith families and gays and lesbians.

Diamond, a Piedmont resident for the past six years, said he will continue to direct the 4-year-old "Ask a Rabbi" service from his new digs in Southern California.

About two dozen questions from AOL subscribers come into Diamond's electronic mailbox every day, and he either answers them himself or parcels them out to one of 25 rabbis on his multidenominational team.

"It's intriguing to my new colleagues in L.A. that I've had this experience," Diamond said.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.