New Peninsula Temple Beth El rabbi hitting the ground running

Rabbi Dennis Eisner’s installation ceremony takes place in October. However, in his case, that may be a bit redundant.

“If I were any more installed,” jokes the new senior rabbi at San Mateo’s Peninsula Temple Beth El, “my head would be covered.”

That’s because in the weeks since arriving at the 660-household Reform synagogue, Eisner has been meeting nonstop with congregants, networking with colleagues and enrolling his children in Jewish day schools. Or, as he puts it, “hitting the ground running.”

Assuming the post after the departure of longtime Peninsula Temple Beth El Rabbi Alan Berg would be a tall order for anyone, but Eisner is ready. He brings with him years of experience as a mover and shaker within the Reform movement and as a rabbi at Los Angeles’ Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

“I’ve been really well trained,” he says. “I have vast experience in both administration and leadership development. I have a master’s in Jewish communal service. I worked for the federation; I worked for the Union [of Reform Judaism]. But once I dipped my toes in the pulpit world, I realized this is what I loved, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

A native of Los Angeles, Eisner says his bonds with Judaism and the Jewish people formed largely at Jewish summer camps in Southern California. As a teen he lived on a kibbutz, solidifying his connection to Israel. And he lived in the Bay Area as a young man, serving as director of Berkeley’s Camp Kee Tov and earning a degree in psychology from San Francisco State University.

It was during his tenure at Kee Tov (a program of Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El) that Eisner first contemplated the rabbinate, largely at the urging of Beth El Cantor Brian Reich.

Eisner was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1998, going on to earn master’s degrees in Hebrew letters and Jewish communal service.

Among his career highlights, serving as assistant dean of the Los Angeles school of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, director of NFTY for the Union for Reform Judaism, and assistant director of the Union’s department of synagogue management.

Over 12 years at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, he directed Camp Hess Kramer and served as associate rabbi, under the mentorship of nationally known figures like Rabbi Harvey Fields.

“I was taught so well,” he recalls. “I saw a great congregation that showed me how you can hang on to your history. There was a work ethic there, a joy of doing sacred work. It’s hard work but look what we get to do.”

For now Eisner feels he’s walked into a thriving synagogue community and will be working with a dream team.

“I inherited great staff and great partners,” he says. “[Associate Rabbi] Karen Citrin, [executive director] Norm Frankel, [educator] Rebecca Goodman and [cantorial soloist] Elana Jagoda are great partners. There’s so much excitement here.”

A strong supporter of organizations like ARZA, AIPAC and the Jewish National Fund, Eisner has a special place in his heart for Klal Yisrael, or the worldwide Jewish community. He professes great respect for all Jewish denominations, saying, “I come from a school of thought where they don’t have to be wrong for me to be right. We all need each other.”

He is at the same time a strong defender of the Reform movement.

“Reform Judaism is authentic, traditional, religious and spiritual,” he says, “and I want to transmit that to our congregation through education and worship. I believe in being inspired by our mitzvot. I believe we need Torah as the major lens through which we lead our lives. God, Torah, Israel: That is the center of who we’re going to be.”

Eisner’s wife, Mandy Eisner, serves as director of development at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills. They have two children, Maxwell and Sadie.

Though he naturally will focus on his San Mateo congregation, Eisner is glad to become part of the greater Bay Area Jewish community.

And he couldn’t have had a better introduction to his peers than attending Jewish Heritage Night at AT&T Park on Aug. 8. Not only did the Giants win big, but also surrounded by rabbis from every denomination (not to mention the “Rally Rabbi” bobbleheads), Eisner came away with a good feeling about his new home base.

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.