Gen-X rabbis conveying wisdom beyond their years

"So rabbi, can you show me some ID?" Rabbi Yair Silverman may lead his own congregation but that doesn't carry much clout with a supermarket checker.

"I still get IDd at jazz clubs," said Silverman, 28, the spiritual leader of Berkeley's Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel.

"That always makes my day."

Looking — and thinking — young doesn't have to be a disadvantage for a Gen-X rabbi, however. When talking Torah, every rabbi will make mention of our forefathers. Only Judah Dardik will bring up "The Godfather."

"The godfather can't turn down a request on his daughter's wedding day. He's in a great mood, how can he not offer someone whatever they're asking for?" explains Dardik, spiritual leader of Oakland's Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation.

For younger congregants the chance to learn Torah from a "Godfather"-themed lecture is an offer they can't refuse.

"Someone who studies Torah, who lives in harmony with a balanced spiritual life is, hopefully, going to be in a good mood. When you're in a good mood, no request is too big. When you're in a bad mood, every request is too big."

The 28-year-old Dardik has also made theological references to "Seinfeld," "The Simpsons" and "Star Wars," as "there's a lot of Torah in what Yoda has to say."

Silverman isn't the only rabbi to borrow

from other mediums. In Palo Alto, Rabbi Sarah Graff has devised a system that could be titled "Crouching Torah, Hidden Dragon."

The 29-year-old assistant rabbi at Conservative Congregation Kol Emeth assigned specific Torah tropes to tae kwan do kicks, blocks and punches, creating a complex biblical choreography that actually lured young Jewish campers away from archery and drama to an unusual Torah class.

"I taught that there are Three T's no Jew should be without: Torah, tefillah [prayer] and tae kwan do," she said. Young students "will repeat [Torah excerpts] much more if they're singing them with kicks and punches."

Sunday school references to Don Vito Corleone's generosity on his daughter's wedding day or the melding of Torah reading and a Jackie Chan flick might appeal to the kids, but probably not to their parents or grandparents.

That's where life gets interesting for young rabbis like Dardik and Silverman, who both head small congregations. While they may not be much older than their college-age congregants, they must serve as leaders, counselors, confidants and spiritual guides for men and women perhaps three times their age.

How does a rabbi who has never been married and whose parents — and perhaps even grandparents — are alive and well counsel a congregant going through marital strife or coping with the loss of a loved one?

Silverman said he does it with his ears.

"Listen. That's my answer. You don't give advice, you listen," said Silverman, "Most people who come to speak to you not in matters of direct halachah but matters of counseling, they need someone to have the wisdom to know to listen, the wisdom to seek to understand. It's not a question of age, it's attitude and perspective."

Dardik and Silverman are the Bay Area's only senior or sole rabbis who are twentysomething — and boy, do they look it. Both of the tall, thin and baby-faced rabbis could pass for backup centers on a junior varsity basketball team. In fact, following the ubiquitous awkward pause accompanying a newcomer's first meeting with the cherubic Dardik, he recites an almost automatic refrain: "Yeah, I know I look 17."

And even though Silverman's congregants affectionately call him "the baby rabbi," he and his fellow Bay Area young rabbis have performed plenty of grown-up tasks.

When Shoshana Greenberg's husband, Archie, became critically ill, Silverman arranged to study Torah with him weekly.

"Nobody asked him. He just did it. I'm not sure, as Archie became more ill, how much he was able to study. But it wasn't just, 'Archie, I want to see you every week.' This was a very respectful and intelligent way to do it. And actually there is someone else now in the congregation who is very ill that he is studying with," said Greenberg, a congregant at Beth Israel for more than 40 years who confirms that while the shul has had rabbis younger than Silverman, the current rabbi is "definitely the youngest-looking."

When Archie's death grew imminent, Silverman made all the arrangements for the body's removal from the house and subsequent burial.

"Throughout, he was very supportive," and the rabbi offered his services without being asked, Greenberg said. "Everything he did transcended his youthful appearance. His appearance had nothing to do with anything…We fool around and say we have a baby rabbi. But nobody has any trouble with the baby rabbi."

Karen "Chai" Levy, the 31-year-old assistant rabbi at Tiburon's Conservative Congregation Kol Shofar, feels her congregants know who she is and who she isn't when they come to her. She isn't, for example, an elderly man with a long white beard and the wisdom of age.

"They come to me, a rabbi who isn't married and isn't a therapist, just because maybe they need somebody to talk to," she said. "Sometimes people come to the rabbi to talk about things like [marital strife] just because they want somebody to listen to them, not because they need marriage counseling."

If a congregant approached Levy with a marital or mental health issue she feels is beyond her capabilities to assist, she would "refer them to the appropriate professionals."

Being young and clean-shaven isn't necessarily a detriment, however.

When faced with tough times, "in some sense, people would like a rabbi who can reflect on a lifetime of experience with situations just like theirs," Graff acknowledged.

"But when presented with me, who they know doesn't come in with that experience, they appreciate that I'm looking at things with fresh eyes. I'm really focusing on them and hearing their experiences and being with them and sort of walking through life together."

Margie Jacobs, the 32-year-old rabbi at Richmond's Reform Temple Beth Hillel agrees with Graff. Lacking decades of experience consoling congregants, Jacobs says she focuses on each person individually instead of mentally filing them away with the dozens of congregants through the years who may have suffered from similar afflictions.

"In some ways, it's helpful to have had similar experiences, but, in other ways, to be able to come in sort of tabula rasa to just hear this person's experiences without my baggage, about it can be helpful," she said.

"It's amazing at this point in my life to have witnessed the different points in the lifecycle, to be let into people's lives to the level that I am."

Congregants of untraditional synagogues, meanwhile, may be more at ease with rabbis of an untraditional age. At Albany's Kol Hadash, the Northern California Community for Humanistic Judaism, Rabbi Kai Eckstein's age was a major factor in his recent hiring — and he's just 32.

"The religious life of my congregation is not a traditional one, so people are open-minded. It is not a problem for them to see a young man," said the German Eckstein, who relocated from Hamburg to the East Bay in early April.

"They knew I am a young man when they hired me, and they are looking for a young man to affect younger people. People there are mostly in their 50s, 60s or 70s, so with younger new members, they thought it might be helpful if the rabbi is young."

While the Bay Area's young rabbis are well-liked and respected at their congregations, the Reform and Conservative movements have rules in place to ensure that even the most competent, promising rabbi doesn't take the helm of a large congregation until he or she has been out of school for a while.

A Reform rabbi can take an assistant position or lead a congregation of fewer than 300 households right out of seminary. But he or she must pick up three years' experience before taking over a congregation of 310 to 599 households and five years' experience to lead a congregation of 600-999 households. He or she must have at least eight years in the rabbinate to lead a congregation of 1,000 or more.

As recently as two years ago, the Reform movement required rabbis to have 10 years' experience to lead a large congregation. A rabbinical shortage prompted the change.

The Conservative movement has similar rules in place, requiring a rabbi to serve 10 years before heading a congregation of 1,000 or more.

Rabbi Jacob Traub, the head of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of San Francisco noted, however, that the Orthodox movement has no such rule in place.

"Congregations are free to hire whomever they choose," noted Traub, spiritual leader of San Francisco's Adath Israel.

"We have guidelines of common sense. A congregation of 1,000 families would probably not take a guy right out of rabbinical school. The basic old search committee statement is: 'We want somebody with 40 years of experience who is in his 30s.'"

Young rabbis may have to wait a while to lead a truly huge congregation, but the starting pay is on a par with that of a high-level professional.

Rabbi Michael Berk, the regional director of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations estimated that a Northern California assistant rabbi or sole rabbi at a small congregation could earn $70,000 to $100,000 a year right out of seminary.

Both Jay Weiner, the regional director of the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism, and Traub agreed those numbers seem reasonable.

Still, the only thing some congregants can think of when first meeting the new rabbi is his or her tender age.

"Oh, he's so young!" said Ruth Smith when asked to recall her first impression of Dardik. The 90-year-old has been a Beth Jacob congregant for 55 years, during which time close to a dozen rabbis have come and gone.

"This is his first pulpit, how can he know anything? Believe me, he fooled everybody. He loves people, he's friendly, he's warm, he cares. And he's very learned. I didn't think he would be being so young — he looks like a teenager."

On the other hand, "I don't notice the youth anymore," she added. We're all getting older [but] he can't grow a beard, so he's not growing one.

"Youth always have the advantage. They think they can change the world, and sometimes they do."

Ted Alexander and Gerald Raiskin were young rabbis once — but now the two have more than a century of experience in the rabbinate between them.

Perhaps two of the most beloved rabbis in the Bay Area, the pair offer sound advice for young rabbis and the congregations they lead.

"First, don't be a clergyman but a friend. Be the old-fashioned rabbi who used to be a friend people would come to whenever they had a problem, or wanted Torah explained to them," said Alexander, 82, the longtime rabbi at San Francisco's Conservative Congregation B'nai Emunah.

"I'm an old fogey, but I still dance with kids. [Rabbis] should not consider themselves as in a different category from their own people. I always say nine rabbis don't make a minyan. Ten Jews do."

Raiskin says he doesn't give advice, but when pressed, the 76-year-old compresses 46 years of experience at Burlingame's Peninsula Temple Sholom into a few concise statements.

"If you want to succeed, there are three important words: Do what you have to do, and then some. Just do a little bit more than you think is expected," said the Reform rabbi.

"The other is to listen very carefully to what congregants are saying, but even more so to what they are not saying. And third, don't take yourself too seriously; you're not the end-all of wisdom in the world."

As for congregations who worry their fresh-faced rabbis are too young, Raiskin knows their fears will be short-lived.

"You will age them very soon."

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.