Adath Israels new rabbi is a scuba-diving, major Beatles fan

How do you keep Shabbat in space where there’s no sunrise and sunset? Do Torah laws apply only on Earth? What if you are orbiting the Earth — do they apply then?

Those are questions Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz struggled with while teaching a lunchtime class for Jewish scientists at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Though the 27-year-old rabbi said he loved thinking about where Judaism and space intersect, he recently traded in that gig to move to San Francisco and become the spiritual leader of Congregation Adath Israel.

But given some time at his new congregation, the rabbi hopes to explore another creative intersection, that between Judaism and pop music. Strulowitz, a licensed scuba diver, is a major Beatles fan and said he wants to offer a class on the subject; the song Eleanor Rigby, for example, has some deeply Jewish themes, he said.

Strulowitz is replacing Rabbi Jacob Traub, who was 27 years old when he arrived, and led the Modern Orthodox shul for 38 years. With Strulowitz is his 26-year-old wife, Bethany, who is completing a master’s degree in Jewish education from Yeshiva University and is a middle-school teacher at Oakland Hebrew Day School. The couple has two daughters, Tehila, 2, and Tiferet, 4 months.

Strulowitz described his wife as a full partner in everything they do; not only would the couple not be here if she wasn’t enthused about coming west, but “being a rabbi is my job, this is our life,” he said in a recent interview in the j. weekly office. “If you view it as only a job, you’re doing a disservice to the profession. It’s a lifestyle.”

Strulowitz didn’t always know he wanted to be a rabbi. In fact, it took him some time to realize he was not going to be a professional football player. (His glasses and slight build certainly make him more like a rabbi than a jock.)

“As a kid, I spent time doing what everyone else did, but I was always very contemplative and thought deeply about things, both about myself and the world around me,” he said. “For awhile, I thought this was part of who I was, and not a profession. But as I got older, I realized this could be part of my profession.”

Yet even though he grew up Modern Orthodox in Miami, his parents tried to convince him that there are better occupations for Jewish boys than being a rabbi.

But Strulowitz knew what he wanted, and ultimately he received his ordination from Yeshiva University in New York.

He has spent three and a half years of his life in Israel, two of them with his wife, living in the heart of Jerusalem during the most violent period of the second intifada.

“It was a very scary time but we felt we had to be there and we wanted to be there,” he said. “We took buses and did everything we had to do. We scared our parents to death but we felt it was very important.”

Adath Israel is Strulowitz’s first congregation. The 250-family synagogue has an aging membership, but people have high hopes that the rabbi can attract younger families to join.

“The Bay Area has a very cultured and sophisticated and educated demographic,” he said, “but I feel there’s a need for a young rabbi who can teach Judaism in a sophisticated way that speaks to a younger generation.”

Strulowitz said the fact that San Francisco is home to many people who attend an Orthodox shul but may not be Orthodox at home, is just fine with him.

“I don’t look at myself as an Orthodox rabbi who preaches my brand of Judaism,” he said. “I see myself as a rabbi for the community who can help people connect to Judaism in whatever way they want to. I want to create an atmosphere in the synagogue where everyone feels comfortable, no matter who they are or where they come from. They can grow and follow their own spiritual journey.”

He continued, “It’s silly to put ourselves in boxes. Jews are Jews, and trying to connect Jews with Judaism is my goal.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."