After 25 years, father’s words still resonate for rabbi

Longtime friends and admirers of Rabbi David White recall his stirring sermons, his deep spirituality and his well-known teaching ability. Some, however, also remember his father, Rabbi Saul White of San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Sholom, shouting at young David from the bimah to quiet down during services.

“I was talking with a friend in the back and I think the words [my father] used were ‘There’s a disturbance in the synagogue going on, and my son is involved,'” recalled White, who, from these improbable beginnings, celebrates his 25th year in the rabbinate with a public reception tonight. “I don’t think that happened more than once. That sort of thing, as you see, sticks with you.”

Being raised by a parent he described as “larger than life,” following in his father’s footsteps never seemed to be in the cards for White, who described himself as “quite turned off as a kid, Jewishly.”

Notions of a rabbinical career wouldn’t begin to foment in White’s mind until he was a college undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley. White found working at Jewish children’s camps particularly satisfying and toyed with the idea of becoming a rabbi — not with the aim of leading a congregation but to better prepare him to work with young people.

“But then I realized that whatever impact you have on the kids during summer camp all goes away if they went back home to parents with different priorities, if you will,” said White. “I thought, ‘Maybe I should reach out to work with families, adults and kids.'”

White was ordained a Conservative rabbi by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1975, and began work at his father’s synagogue as the head of youth programming. His desire to work with children and families led him to seek a pulpit of his own, and White landed at tiny Kol Shofar in Marin in 1977. At the time, the congregation consisted of only 45 families. By the time White left in 1991, that number had quadrupled to over 200.

Novato resident Fred Cherniss — who had lost contact with David since he was a 17-year-old sitting in the sanctuary when 10-year-old David’s chattering caught the ear of Rabbi Saul White — became reacquainted with him a few decades later. Cherniss said he “was quite impressed with what I saw of David, the man and David, the rabbi.

“We had done some shul shopping, and I really enjoyed his approach. David is really enthusiastic about davening. He really believes what he’s doing and what he’s teaching; it’s infectious. We gained.”

Some Kol Shofar congregants still recall White’s more powerful sermons. Cherniss’ wife, Tessie, brings up a Rosh Hashanah service from the late 1970s in which White, concerned about Marin’s level of Jewish involvement, compared Judaism to a frail old woman in an old age home, waiting for someone to come visit her.

“That is certainly one drash of his I will never forget,” she said. “The little old lady was waiting for something to happen, for someone to remember her. It was very, very moving.”

From his very early days in the rabbinate, White had always told friends and family that, in his opinion, “If I do my job correctly, then I envision working myself out of a job in about 15 years.” So, not surprisingly, White decided he had “taught everything I knew,” and left Kol Shofar after 14 years.

The rabbi entered the world of business, forming an organization called Relationship Resources Unlimited, which works to replace some of the more negative traits of a workplace environment with White’s notion of a “kadosh [literally, holy] moment.”

“There’s no word for perfection in the Hebrew language,” said White. “The word exchange is ‘kadosh’: Don’t try to be No. 1, try to be unique. This is important for business settings as well. If you try to be perfect, the best you can do is achieve it for a moment. And what you do will wear and tear on you. Try to turn the moment into something beyond the ordinary.

“In my experience, kadosh is the most important image in all Judaism.”

White has served as half-time rabbi at Congregation Beth Sholom in Napa since 1994, conducting services, teaching and working out of the synagogue several days a week. He has carried his kadosh message there as well.

“The whole idea of stopping is something David focuses on. You don’t have to wait until Shabbat, you can stop at a red light in an intersection,” said congregant David Freed. “You don’t have to get frustrated waiting for it turn green, you can say ‘Whoa, I’ve got 30 seconds, what a gift!’ You can look outside the window and see the sun, or children playing, instead of just trying to make up time.

“You can elevate any moment and make it into a kadosh moment, a special moment.”

Freed and White run an organization called “WineSpirit,” which examines the spiritual role of Napa Valley’s most famous product.

Between Relationship Resources Unlimited, WineSpirit, a role on the Napa Interfaith Council and Congregation Beth Sholom, White manages to stay busy. Next month he and Sharon Cohn celebrate their 22nd wedding anniversary, and, to date, White has not yet yelled at either of their two children from the bimah.

“I want this congregation to continue to grow into itself; a strong, vibrant community,” said the rabbi. “If that means eventually growing myself out of a job again, that’s OK.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.