Peninsula Sinai rabbi’s path crosses law, medicine, ethics

Rabbi Corey Helfand is calling the next 12 months of his life “the year of relationships.”

It’s not a sign from the Chinese Zodiac. As the newly installed rabbi at Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City, Helfand intends to spend a year getting to know his 44-year-old Conservative congregation and finding out what makes it tick.

Rabbi Corey Helfand photo/ellen dubin

“Every synagogue has its own story and history,” he says. “For me it’s about making sure I pay close attention to that. I’m not interested in making sweeping changes; I’m mostly coming in to listen.”

Helfand, 28, replaces Rabbi Adam Rosenthal, who had served as senior rabbi since 2007. He says he brings several strengths to the role, not the least of which is a virtual black belt in high-tech geekiness.

“I want to get [the synagogue] more into the 21st century,” he says, “with Facebook, Twitter, blogging and the way we market ourselves online.”

On a more rabbinic level, he wants to expand adult education opportunities at Peninsula Sinai while drawing on what he calls “relevant Torah,” which he defines as “taking the tradition and making it applicable, meaningful and relevant to people today.”

He’s been on the job only a few weeks, but Helfand says he’s already getting a sense of his congregation’s collective personality. “This is a group of really kind and caring people,” he notes. “They actually have a really beautiful Jewish soul.”

This is Helfand’s first rabbinic assignment since his ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in May.

A native of Kansas City, Kan., Helfand grew up attending one of the regain’s largest Conservative synagogues. However, his interest in the rabbinate came relatively late. He is a self-proclaimed “medical school dropout” but did graduate with a degree in Jewish and Islamic studies from Washington University in St. Louis.

A year studying in the Masorti (Conservative) yeshiva in Jerusalem set off a big light bulb.

“The rabbinate allowed me to combine all my passions,” he says. “Law, medicine in Jewish medical ethics and my interest in working with people.”

As a rabbinical student, he interned at Conservative synagogues in Riverdale, N.Y., and Davidson, N.C. He also served as the rabbinic intern for the Masorti community in Kiryat Bialik outside Haifa, Israel.

Helfand is married to Jenny Ackerman, who completed master’s degrees in public health at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem and social work at Hunter College in New York. They have a 9-month-old daughter, Eden.

With the High Holy Days coming up, Helfand will have the bully pulpit (make that, bully bimah) to introduce himself to the entire community. From there, he expects to book many one-on-one meetings with congregants in the months to come.

He hopes those meetings will elicit some deep conversations.

“We as a Jewish community often like to avoid difficult questions,” he says. “People often say, ‘What does the rabbi think?’ I’m more interested in what the other people think. That’s where connection is possible. Judaism has the tools and resources to answer those difficult questions.”

Meanwhile, in the waning days of summer, the native Midwesterner is enjoying the good life in the Golden State, and so far he likes what he sees.

“The weather is golden,” he says. “For now.”

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.