High Holy Days a trip down memory lane in Oakland

It's a familiar saga: Leave Oakland, spend some years in Southern California and then come back.

Only this tale isn't about the Oakland Raiders.

It's about Rabbi Jerry Danzig.

The executive director of Temple Beth Abraham during the Oakland synagogue's heyday in the '60s is returning after 30 years to lead High Holy Day services in a few weeks.

The semi-retired, 69-year-old resident of Woodland Hills is flying north to pinch hit while the Conservative congregation seeks a permanent replacement for Rabbi Mark Diamond, who left in July to become the executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

Danzig said he was "thrilled with the idea" when Beth Abraham officials propositioned him about taking the bimah on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

"At the time they asked, I actually had another offer to do High Holy Day services in Juneau, Alaska," he said last week by telephone. "So it came down to Beth Abraham and Juneau. This time, I chose the warmer weather. But I'll get to Alaska at some point."

If he keeps this up, pretty soon Danzig will be able to star in a TV show called "Have Machzor, Will Travel." Last year, he led High Holy Day services in Melbourne, Australia.

"I'm always available for different Jewish adventures in life," he said proudly.

After putting in a long career of service, Danzig justifiably could list his current job description as "retired."

He has spent more than 40 years in Jewish life as a rabbi, administrator and educator.

But Danzig isn't slowing down much. He lectures at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and is the three-days-a-week temporary executive director at Congregation Shomrei Torah in Los Angeles County.

Danzig's trip north is being eagerly anticipated by many of Beth Abraham's "old-timers." He will actually do something of a warm-up session when he leads Shabbat services today and tomorrow at Beth Abraham.

"I'm very excited about it," said Pearl Kasdan Jonas of Alameda. "I've known him for years and years. I'm so glad that he's coming back."

Danzig will be happy to see Kasdan Jonas, too. She happened to play a key role in his life. She linked him up to his future wife.

When Danzig began his stint at Beth Abraham, which lasted from 1963 to 1970, he was a bachelor and Kasdan Jonas was friends with a young U.C. Berkeley coed named Joy.

"I said, 'Jerry, you know I have a girl that I'd like you to meet,'" Kasdan Jonas remembered. "So he said to me, 'Please don't introduce me to any girls. I'll meet girls on my own.'"

Thinking that was the end of it, she told Joy that Danzig wasn't interested. But that wasn't the end of it.

"A few weeks later, he called me and said, 'I have two tickets for the ballet and would like to take someone. Who was this girl that you wanted me to meet?' I called Joy and said, 'Jerry Danzig is going to call and take you to the ballet.' We just laughed."

The rabbi and Joy have been together ever since, including 35 years of marriage. They were wed in the Beth Abraham sanctuary by Rabbi Harold Schulweis, now in Encino.

While at Beth Abraham, Danzig wasn't yet a rabbi. He served as the education director and then the executive director. By the time he left, Beth Abraham had about 650 member families, making it one of the largest synagogues in the Bay Area; the membership is now some 300 households.

"It was a very youthful community at the time, and a lot of [the large membership] had to do with Rabbi Schulweis, who was establishing a tremendous international reputation," Danzig said. "He brought new thoughts, new ideas and new ways of worship. He really intellectualized the synagogue."

Danzig played a big role, too. As the education director, he took over a day school that "met in a garage" and involved 68 families. When he left, the number of families was more than 500.

"I developed a program called Derech Ami [way of our people]. It was very interactive; kids would learn through action and they studied in groups," Danzig said. "This was long before kids elsewhere were making their own tallitot for their bar mitzvahs or learning how to put on the tzitzit. Most teaching at the time was by rote, by memorizing."

After leaving Beth Abraham in 1970, Danzig received his ordination from Beth Midrash Lerabanim Tifereth Israel in New York.

Danzig took his first pulpit assignment at Conservative Congregation Beth David in Saratoga, founding the Yavneh Day School.

After 11 years at Beth David, he moved to Southern California, becoming the regional director of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. He then joined Valley Beth Sholom for 14 years, once again teaming up with Schulweis, the head rabbi there.

Danzig said he was partially inspired by Schulweis to become a rabbi. But he was also fulfilling his destiny. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all rabbis.

In fact, just about every male in his family followed in the rabbinical footsteps of Rabbi Avraham Danzig, known to history as the Chayei Adam. Born in 1748 in Danzig, Poland (now called Gdansk), he was a noted codifier of Jewish law whose works became standard sources for halachic study.

Meanwhile, at Beth Abraham — where a permanent rabbi should be in place by this time next year — many people are excited about getting re-acquainted with Danzig.

"There are a lot of old-timers who are really thrilled that he's coming back to do this," said longtime Beth Abraham member Agnes Pencovic. "He's really a fine man who everyone was really fond of."

"This is a wonderful opportunity," Danzig said, comparing the experience to opening up a photo album and being flooded by only the good memories in one's life.

"You think about the past 30 or 40 years, all the things that have made your life enriched. And I've been seeing some of the names of people [still at Beth Abraham]. I see their faces in my mind the way they were 30 years ago. For someone to go back to your roots again like this is rejuvenating. It makes you feel youthful again."

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.