Rabbinic intern goes the distance for social action in Marin

Call it a long-distance relationship in the name of social justice. For the next year, Ethan Bair will fly every two weeks from Los Angeles to San Francisco to be the rabbinical intern for Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael.

“Social justice is very central to a lot of people’s Jewish identities,” said Bair, who took up his position at the Reform synagogue Oct. 2. “Judaism has a lot to say about social justice and what our responsibility is in our community.”

Ethan Bair

During his one-year stint at Rodef Sholom, Bair will coordinate the congregation’s Jewish Funds for Justice excursion to the Gulf Coast in February 2010, in addition to helping with text studies, assisting the rabbis on Shabbat and educating families during the Kol HaMishpacha (Hebrew for “all family”) social justice class on Sunday mornings.

Because the class is a mixture of adults and children from kindergarten to fourth grade, Bair has devised a curriculum that presents paradigms of Judaism in an accessible way for families to learn together.

Bair hopes to inspire his students “to get deeper into Judaism and also become more engaged with local action on a social justice level,” he said.

Steven and Lara Rajninger of Larkspur, who both volunteer for a number of nonprofits, signed up for Bair’s course in an effort to teach their 9-year-old twins, Tomi and Jericho, just that.

“We were thrilled when the class was announced,” Lara said. “The tikkun olam class is an opportunity for the four of us to do some mitzvahs, as well as study Jewish texts and history.” 

Bair, 28, is a fourth-year student at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. A partnership between the campus and Rodef Sholom led to his social justice internship, an experience he plans to gain knowledge from as well.  

“I’m really interested in spirituality and having a deeply rooted spiritual life that combines the personal process and practice of community with Judaism,” Bair said.    

Prior to his official first day as rabbinic intern, Bair helped lead the Panim Teen Social Justice internship, a six-week program that united 13 Jewish teens from Rodef Sholom and Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. The group met three times a week with Bair and rabbinic interns Anne Lewis (from the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary in New York) and Samuel Rose (from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati).

The teens met with homeless youth and adults; teen leaders in a low-income housing area in San Rafael; new immigrants in San Francisco’s Chinatown; and Mill Valley Seniors for Peace, who hold weekly anti-war street demonstrations. Each session began with a Jewish prayer to contextualize specific lessons.

“The fact that Ethan was not only our summer intern but that he is staying on as our yearlong intern is a huge blessing,” said Rodef Sholom Rabbi Michael Lezak. “Ethan is shepherding our summer social justice interns through the school year, and deepening their connection to the work of the community and teens around the country.” 

Bair, who grew up in Boston, graduated in 2003 from Oberlin College in Ohio,  lived in Germany for a year and studied German Jewish history before starting rabbinical school in 2006.  

“I grew up in a very universalistic household, with hippie parents who are interested in all religions and spiritual seekers,” Bair said. “For me, becoming a rabbi is about reclaiming that authenticity in being Jewish, and how we make Judaism meaningful and contribute to the realistic ideals of our parents’ generation.”