Rabbis unique path to Judaism leads him to Kol Emeth

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Boy meets girl at Friday night services. Girl’s spirituality leads boy to more deeply contemplate his commitment to Judaism. Boy becomes rabbi, girl becomes rebbetzin.

That’s not too unusual a story, and it does sum up the background of Rabbi David Booth and his wife, Carol. But aye, there’s the rub: Girl was Presbyterian.

Booth, who took the reins from retiring Rabbi Sheldon “Shelly” Lewis at Palo Alto’s Congregation Kol Emeth last month, is pretty sure his wife would have converted even if they’d never met his freshman year at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University. (Truth be told, meeting a nice Jewish girl was the real reason Booth began attending services at college and, in a way, he did.) But it’s likely he’d have never grappled with his own faith and become a Conservative rabbi if he hadn’t met a Presbyterian girl from the Land ‘O Lincoln, Springfield, Ill.

“The comfort and meaning I derive from my faith in God is a gift from her,” admits Booth, a 36-year-old whose youthful looks may well result in awkward pauses while he fumbles for his driver’s license when buying a beer at the ballpark.

Booth is well and truly a local guy, born in Oakland and raised in Foster City and Hillsborough (San Mateo High, Class of ’87). And though his family regularly attended Conservative Peninsula Temple Sinai and a 14-year-old Booth even attended a friend’s bar mitzvah officiated by Lewis (Lewis, not surprisingly, didn’t remember him 22 years later), Booth was never much into Judaism.

“My dad would sometimes drag me to shul, and I’d go only to please my dad, not to pray — God forbid,” he recalls.

“I dropped out of confirmation class the second my parents would let me.”

But that all changed when Booth met Carol. The two dated throughout college, but actually broke up her senior year over religious issues. It was at this point, however, that a campus-area rabbi asked Carol if she’d ever thought about converting to Judaism. And it had honestly never occurred to her.

“I owe him,” says Booth. The couple’s three young children owe him too.

As a man who has wrestled with Judaism and its place in his life, Booth feels he can reach people who, like the younger version of himself, doubt there’s much room in their world for organized religion.

“I’m in the habit of struggling with faith and what Judaism means to me. Someone who’s a natural at something may not be able to teach others. But I’m someone who’s conscious and thoughtful about every step that’s brought me here,” he says.

Booth served as a pulpit rabbi in Virginia and New Jersey for nearly a decade before “coming home” to Kol Emeth. While the synagogue’s proximity to his hometown piqued his interest, it was the “participatory, serious, intellectual” community he found within that sealed the deal.

At Kol Emeth, Booth hopes to expand the synagogue’s family and adult education programs.

Lewis, now the rabbi emeritus, has been a source of support.

“Shelly makes it easy. He’s just such a sweet and warm guy. He really has no ego,” said Booth.

“From the community’s perspective, my anxiety was: Is this a community that was emotionally ready to accept a new rabbi?

“That was a very hard thing to assess from the outside. And people still like to talk about Shelly, he was a great rabbi here — but they also want to emotionally connect with me.”

Booth will be officially installed after the High Holy Days, in November. And if his hair is less than perfect, don’t be surprised — he’s a serious cyclist and often pedals to work.

“In fact,” he says with a laugh, “it’s quicker than driving.”

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.