The rabbi and me: A carpool sparks an unlikely friendship

The first time I saw Rabbi Daniel Rabin, with his long beard and kippah, I thought: I have nothing in common with this Orthodox guy.

That was disappointing, because before we met in person we had committed to carpooling once a week from San Francisco to Merritt College, where we both would be teaching at Oakland Midrasha, an evening educational program for Jewish teens.

When we met at a teacher training, I did the carpool math in my head. Forty-five minutes there, 25 minutes back, four times monthly, meant that for nearly five hours each month, I’d have to sit in a car next to someone who seemed to be my opposite.

My bigger concern was that my carpooling with Daniel would leave me feeling judged as an inadequate Jew, an idea based on my notion that Orthodox Jews judge my inobservance, even though I know this is generally not true.

I could not have been more wrong.

Four months into our carpooling, Daniel has become a good friend, a relationship that blossomed once I realized he was my age.

At first, I was stunned that this man with the big beard, slight belly and two children was only 27 years old. I had previously considered him much older, wiser and more mature than I. Learning we were the same age helped me understand that we were equals who had simply chosen different paths in our lives.

We respect each other. We confide in each other — I knew when his daughter Shaina was teething while also fighting a nasty cold. He knew when I went out on a particularly awesome date, and then a second and a third.

He explains to me stories and lessons from the Torah and Talmud that he learned in yeshiva, while I tell him about Jewish overnight camp and celebrating Shabbat with an acoustic guitar sing-along.

We talk about our students, and swap stories from the front lines of the classroom. We congratulate each other when our lesson plan thrives and console the other when it fails.

Daniel is from South Africa, and we consider the ways our cultures are similar and different. We’ve even swapped funny stories of times when we drank a little too much in Jerusalem.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, we argued about politics while half-listening to conservative talk radio and National Public Radio. It was the first time in my life that I had engaged in civil, considerate and thoughtful political conversation with someone with whom I disagreed.

Last month, I finally accepted an invitation to have Shabbat dinner at Daniel’s house. He and his wife, Sarah, live with her parents in San Francisco’s Richmond District.

On Dec. 19, I celebrated Shabbat with more than 100 people at the Rabins’ home (which doubles as a synagogue). Daniel led services for the men while the women on the other side of the lace mechitzah chitchatted — even though Daniel poked his head through the mechitzah and encouraged them to pray.

We ate numerous courses of food and toasted “L’chaim” every 10 minutes. It was joyous and communal and heartwarming. I even got to hold Shaina and watch her giggle as she bounced on my lap.

Now, I am disappointed when Daniel and I pull up in front of my San Francisco flat. It means the end of our conversation until the following week. And there is always so much to talk about, so many stories to share, this semi-secular Jewish woman and Orthodox man, meandering through their 20s at different speeds, in sync for a brief moment each week during the trip from San Francisco to Oakland and back.

If I could hug him, I would do so every Tuesday night when we say goodbye. I can’t, because he’s shomer negiah (which means the only woman he can have physical contact with is his wife). But I appreciate his friendship nonetheless.

Daniel and his family will soon move to Melbourne, Australia, and our carpool will cease to exist. I’m sad for that.

But I will always remember how much I learned from him. And I know that if I’m ever in Australia, he will gladly host me for Shabbat.

Stacey Palevsky lives in San Francisco. She can be reached at [email protected].

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.