Three rabbis, five opinions

“If we had Jewish missionaries,” pronounced Rabbi Ted Alexander from the bimah, “the floodgates would open. We would have millions. But,” he quickly added, “we don’t need that.”

Alexander and two other local rabbis, together representing the three main streams of Judaism, gathered at San Francisco’s Congregation B’nai Emunah on Sunday, May 23, to discuss “Redefining Jewish identity in the 21st century.”

But as often happens with panels like this, the topic served as springboard to a far-reaching discussion of Jewish issues.

Alongside Alexander were Reform Rabbi George Gittleman of Santa Rosa’s Congregation Shomrei Torah and Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi of Congregation Chevra Thilim, an Orthodox synagogue in San Francisco. Yossi Offenberg, programs manager at the JCCSF, served as moderator.

Two other rabbis were no-shows, but both had good reasons. Chabad of S.F. Rabbi Yosef Langer was coping with a fire that damaged his home, while Rabbi Pam Frydman Baugh of Or Shalom Jewish Community was attending a dinner in her honor.

Still, there was plenty of food for thought for the 30 people in attendance.

Gittleman stressed the need for innovation to keep Jews involved with Judaism. He cited as an example having bands play at services, a tactic he admits he borrowed from the Protestant world. “We’re competing for people’s spare time,” he said.

He also urged the Jewish community to not turn its collective back on interfaith couples. “We either go back to the shtetls or embrace these families,” he said.

Alexander, calling himself “a great optimist,” said he believes Jews are on the right track in terms of identity. “We’re almost back to pre-Holocaust numbers,” he said. “Look at the nes gadol (great miracle) of our existence.”

Zarchi is a product of the Chabad movement, and though his synagogue is not part of Chabad, he still exudes the blithe spirit of a Chabad shaliach.

“There’s a lot of love in Judaism,” he said. “Judaism is going through a renaissance. There are more Orthodox shuls in the U.S. and Israel than ever before. The soul wants to be affiliated.”

During a spirited question-and-answer period, the rabbis tackled a variety of topics. But things heated up when one questioner asked the panelists’ thoughts about gays and lesbians in Jewish life.

Representing traditional Judaism’s longstanding rejection of homosexuality, Zarchi approached the subject delicately. “I start with Judaism’s own explanation of what Judaism is,” he said. “Torah decides what the rules are. I don’t.”

Getting his dander up, Alexander strongly disagreed. “Two verses in Torah interpreted by human beings,” he hollered, citing the Biblical injunctions against homosexual behavior. “We know more today.”

As for seeking converts, Alexander cited the Jewish tradition of “welcoming the stranger,” but added, “We are not in the business of telling people we have a better religion than they do.”

Gittleman was open to the idea. “Let those who are interested come,” he said.

Throughout, the rumble of MUNI’s L line shook the synagogue, but not the enthusiasm of those in attendance.

Said David Goldstein of San Francisco, “It was a worthwhile forum, but as an openly gay Jewish man, I disagree with the Orthodox perspective.”

Added George Wertheim, “They showed Judaism is many things to many people. Jews have the freedom to have differing interpretations and still call themselves Jews.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.