Rabbi reflects on decade atop local Reform movement

Michael Berk’s last job taught him a number of things he’d like to do as a pulpit rabbi. It also taught him plenty of things not to do.

The Bay Area regional director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism) for a decade, Berk relocated this month to Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego. At 55, he figured this was a good time to get back into the pulpit before it was too late.

He sees it as something of a return to the battlefield after a sojourn in the general’s tent.

“I realized I’ve learned a tremendous amount about how congregations, synagogues and the Jewish community works and you almost can’t learn it when you’re in the trenches,” he said in a phone interview from his office, a stone’s throw from La Jolla.

In his last position, he often acted as something of a marriage counselor patching up troubled relationships between rabbis and congregation boards. His No. 1 lesson is that clergy and lay leadership ought to have a set-upon agreement over what the rabbi’s role is to be at the very onset. Otherwise things start out bad and get worse.

“A lot of breakdowns we see in congregations between clergy and other staff are so often the result of a lack of understanding and partnership,” said Berk, a former San Rafael resident who took his former post in 1997.

“As regional director I worked very closely with clergy, staff and lay leaders. It just broadened my perspective on how to work together.”

In his decade in the Bay Area, Berk said he most treasured the new relationships he found and his ability to be a “rabbi’s rabbi.” His proudest hour, he said, was the aid and comfort he was able to lend to Sacramento synagogue B’nai Israel, which was firebombed in 1999 by white supremacists.

Berk’s wife, Aliza, also a rabbi, landed an open position as director of the Jewish Healing Center in San Diego; she had worked for San Francisco’s Jewish Healing Center for many years.

Michael Berk is succeeded by interim regional director Rabbi Larry Jackofsky, who recently retired as UAHC regional director in Dallas.

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.