Ex-TV documentarian shifts focus, takes Sinai bimah

The unlikely saga of an Emmy award-winning producer who scraps her considerable career to become a rabbi might have caught Suzanne Singer's eye back in her television documentary days.

Except the story is about Singer herself. She has just joined the pulpit at Oakland's Reform Temple Sinai.

"After years in television, I finally felt like I was in the right place," said Singer, who was ordained in May at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles and began her new job at Sinai on July 1. She will be installed during services on Friday, Sept. 5.

The plot isn't as convoluted as it might sound.

The daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Singer grew up with a burning desire to work for social justice.

"I always had a sense of outrage against injustices in the world and a real pull to try to make things better in the world," explained the 50-year-old New York native who grew up in an assimilated family.

After graduating from U.C. Berkeley with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and a master's in broadcast journalism, Singer launched a media career. For the next 20 years, she produced a variety of documentaries, news specials and public affairs programs for commercial and public television.

Her work took her on a hopscotch national course, with stints in San Francisco, New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.

In the mid-1990s, two documentaries she aired as executive producer of PBS "POV" series won Emmys. One, called "The Transformation," dealt with a transvestite's experience with Christian missionaries and the other, "aka Don Bonus," focused on a Cambodian teen growing up in a San Francisco housing project.

"When that was over, I left television," Singer said in a recent phone interview.

Increasingly, she was encountering financial and political obstacles to delivering socially meaningful programming. "It became more and more difficult," she said, noting that her show almost lost its funding completely in 1996.

Besides, she said, "I always felt out of place in television. I felt the values and the way people treated each other were just so different from mine."

Singer also longed to be closer to the people she served.

That's when Singer took her bold leap, enrolling in a master's program at HUC. For years, she'd toyed with the notion of becoming a rabbi and now, she decided to plunge into the study of Judaism and see where it led.

Though she had moments of hesitation about what seemed like "a crazy idea," Singer said, "I finally decided life is too short.

"I wanted to be part of healing the world" and the personal care of individuals.

Though reared in a household that included a tree at Christmastime, Singer was drawn to Judaism and text study.

At first, her passions were an intellectual pursuit of Jewish knowledge. She struggled with spirituality. Because of her mother's experience as a survivor of Auschwitz, Singer found it "difficult to go to services and praise God," she said.

"I really had to work out this whole thing of prayer and services," she said, explaining that for some time, she was angry at God "for what happened to my mother and all the other Jews" and innocent people of the world.

Singer's mother, Nicole Silberkleit, died earlier this year at the age of 76. Her 79-year-old father lives in Lima, Peru.

While living and studying in Los Angeles, Singer started attending services at a synagogue called Ohr HaTorah. Eventually, she began staying for an entire three-hour service that was conducted in Hebrew and in song.

She also came to grips with her personal fight, realizing that the process of "asking questions of why and doing all that struggling is very Jewish.

"I think the struggle itself was part of being connected to Judaism," she said.

She decided to separate argument to periods of text study and to praise God while in prayer. She also moved away from the model of God as being "responsible for everything that happened in the world." Once she did that, "I didn't have to sit around and be angry all the time."

At Sinai, Singer will work with Rabbis Steven Chester and Andrea Berlin. Berlin is moving to a part-time schedule.

And though she's left television, Singer will retain close ties to the world of entertainment.

Singer is married to actor Jordan Lund, whose credits include performances on "NYPD Blue," "L.A. Law" and in the 1989 film "Lock Up," in which he played a psychopathic prison guard who beats up Sylvester Stallone. He's also "played all kinds of aliens," Singer said.

While her shift from TV to the Torah may sound abrupt, Singer notes that she debated making it for 15 years. "I've had this long period of time to transition into this new role," she said. "It's not something that sort of burst into my personality from nowhere."

In her new job, Singer will share "pretty much the whole gamut of rabbinic responsibilities," including performing lifecycle events, pastoral counseling, services and teaching.

"As a rabbi, I can be part of people's spiritual healing" and social action programs, she said.

She thinks her new career will be a good fit.

"I feel like, what look me so long?" she said.