Beth Sholom, a gem, draws rabbi back to California

Kenneth Leitner was born and raised in California, and the traffic and earthquakes were enough to convince him to leave and never come back.

But when the Port Chester, N.Y., rabbi learned of the vacancy at San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Sholom, he had a change of heart.

He found the Conservative Beth Sholom to be “a real gem.”

“This is a congregation with 50 people who can and do read Torah, and there are easily 20 more who can chant Haftarah,” he said. “There are dozens who can lead services on a very high level.”

Asked whether this is the norm at a Conservative synagogue, he replied, “Unfortunately, it’s not common enough. These are essential skills, and to find a congregation where people take their participation in Judaism so seriously, at this stage in my life was exactly what I was looking for.”

Leitner has replaced Rabbi Alan Lew, who retired in July as spiritual leader of the congregation.

Leitner will be formally installed at 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 6.

Most recently, Leitner, served as spiritual leader of Congregation Kneses Tifereth Israel in Westchester County, N.Y.

Two decades ago, he was the first full-time rabbi at Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He was also arrested here with other rabbinical colleagues during the Soviet Jewry movement.

Leitner grew up in a household where his father, an engineer, would read and teach him Torah. Leitner entered college as a chemistry major, but it was the late 1960s.

“It was a very contentious time in American history and I went looking for answers to deep questions. I found the people who were most willing to engage those questions were the people who were teaching at the rabbinic schools.”

While his progressive outlook steered him toward the Reform movement’s seminary, his personal practice has always been more Conservative.

This is true for performing gay unions; something that the Conservative movement does not allow, yet most Bay Area Conservative rabbis will do.

“When it has the sanction of the Rabbinical Assembly, I would have no difficulty with it,” he said.

Leitner also picked up some woodworking skills from his father. When he retires, he would like to become a master woodworker; in his spare time, he makes small bowls and sculptures with a lathe. He also enjoys classical music.

Leitner is divorced and has two children. His daughter is about to finish college and hopes to pursue a career in teaching. His son, recently engaged, is an Israeli citizen and about to enter a Ph.D. program. He moved to Israel 10 years ago and is now permanently disabled due to a secret mission he undertook as a paratrooper in the Israel Defense Forces. Leitner visits him twice a year.

“There’s tremendous pride in having someone who is so dedicated to the things they believe in and willing to live them out, and a tremendous sadness that we don’t live in the age of ‘Star Trek’ so we can beam up and visit a little more often,” he said.

“The pride is tempered by the pain of distance.”