For Emanu-El’s two new rabbis, job is a family business

Finding a new senior rabbi to lead Northern California’s largest Reform synagogue wasn’t going to be an easy task, especially filling the shoes of the previous job-holder, who had been there for 20 years.

So Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco redoubled its efforts — and came up with two senior rabbis. Who happen to be married to each other.

Rabbis Beth and Jonathan Singer, both 54, have experience in this type of job sharing, serving the last four years as co–senior rabbis at Seattle’s Temple Beth Am. They will be welcomed to Emanu-El at an official installation ceremony and Shabbat service at 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 11.

Rabbis Jonathan and Beth Singer

After a nationwide, yearlong search to replace the retiring Rabbi Stephen Pearce, Emanu-El’s board realized that “the best candidate was not a single individual, but was instead an extraordinarily talented team of two,” wrote Steven Dinkelspiel, board president, highlighting the couple’s “passion, warmth, intellect and energy.”

Both rabbis are graduates of Pomona College, and both were ordained by Hebrew Union College in 1989. Jonathan Singer served as assistant rabbi and then associate rabbi at Temple Israel in New Rochelle, N.Y., before joining Temple Beth Am as senior rabbi in 1995.

Beth Singer began her career as an assistant rabbi at West-chester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., then became associate rabbi at Temple De Hirsch Sinai in Seattle before joining Temple Beth Am as associate rabbi in 1997. In 2009, she became co–senior rabbi alongside her husband. The couple have three children.

“Personally, after watching both my children grow up at [Beth Am] while the Singers were here — I know my kids are both very committed to Judaism and feel a very strong Jewish identity,” said Elizabeth Asher, board president of the Seattle synagogue. “That’s thanks to this community, and it’s thanks to the Singers’ leadership, voice, commitment to social justice. I can think of no better legacy for a rabbi than that.

“It wasn’t easy to let them go, but of course we’re happy for them — we just hope Congregation Emanu-El embraces them as we did, because they have so much to give,” she added.

In the Singers’ time at the Seattle congregation, membership grew from 375 to more than 900 families. Emanu-El has about 2,100 member families.

As for the move to the Bay Area and Emanu-El, both rabbis said they were excited to get to know and be part of such a vibrant community.

“This is a historic synagogue that I see also as being forever young,” said Jonathan Singer, who shortly after starting at the Seattle synagogue in 1995 began performing same-sex commitment ceremonies and advocating for LGBT rights. “San Francisco is a dynamic city, with a growing population, and it’s a place that in many ways the rest of the country looks to for guidance in terms of innovation.

“To me, Emanu-El has the opportunity to be the heart of progressive Judaism in the Bay Area — not just to draw people in, but also to go out of the gates, so to speak, to bring Emanu-El to the larger Bay Area. There are so many people out there looking for connection,” he said, noting that he was happy to see the large crowd drawn to the synagogue’s recent Sukkot celebration.

“There are so many positive, dedicated staff, clergy and congregants here who are devoted to making Emanu-El a great Jewish gathering place, and it’s such a pleasure to be part of it,” his wife added. “We want to continue to build that. There’s fantastic preschool programming, young adult programming, parent programming, religious school. One thing we’d like to do is look for unique ways to bring the entire community together periodically — when people are as dedicated as they are here, there’s an opportunity to create unique experiences for the entire Jewish community.”

She said it’s important to her that the congregation continue to open its arms to interfaith and Jewish families of all backgrounds, and to have partnerships as opposed to a sense of competition with other congregations. “We’re really looking forward to partnering with other Jewish agencies, [such as] the Contemporary Jewish Museum and Jewish Community High School, as well,” she said.

As for how the pair share the job of senior rabbi, she said it’s actually easier than one might think.

“The job is so big — the two of us are co–senior rabbis, we’ve been doing this together a long time, and I joke that I still never get enough time with my husband,” she said with a laugh. “We have a very strong shared vision, but the way we work, it’s actually a rare moment that we get to be in the same room together.

“I do think [choosing us] was a very courageous move on the part of Emanu-El; I know they didn’t set out to have co–senior rabbis … but we’ve found that the model works very effectively.”

Added her husband: “We both believe in synagogues as centers of Jewish civilization — as spiritual places, places for Jews who are searching for social justice and learning opportunities but also personal support, and that vision is reflected in Emanu-El.”

“It’s the family business,” he said of the couple’s work dynamic. “It’s really an engagement of love, and in a family like ours, it’s just fortunate that we get to work together.”

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.