For San Mateo temple, hiring new rabbis as easy as 1-2-3

At a time when many congregations are struggling to maintain their membership, let alone grow, one Bay Area synagogue recently had the good fortune of being in the position to hire not one, not two, but three new rabbis — and the best candidate for each open position just happened to be a woman.

Rabbis Sara Mason-Barkin, Lisa Kingston and Callie Schulman all joined the staff at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo this summer.

They have taken over the education and teen coordinator roles previously filled by Rabbis Micah and Karen Citrin, a married couple who left in July to become co-senior rabbis at a temple in Tulsa, Okla.

“We’ve been very fortunate: We’ve grown considerably in the last six years, and the congregation is really bursting at the seams in all areas,” said senior Rabbi Dennis Eisner, who led the nine-month search for new clergy. “We realized we were going to need to increase our educational and clergy staff in order to meet not only the needs of the congregation, but to be active members of the North Peninsula Jewish community.”

Beth El does a lot of work with the Peninsula JCC and Wornick Jewish Day School, both in Foster City.

Mason-Barkin, an associate rabbi, is serving as the director of the Reform congregation’s early childhood education curriculum and the Gesher (family learning) program. Ordained by Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in 2010, she comes to Beth El from Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills.

The daughter of a rabbi and a Jewish educator, Mason-Barkin moved to San Mateo with her husband (another Jewish educator) and 18-month-old son. The New York native said Jewish teaching and learning is a “family passion” for her, and she’s thrilled to be at a congregation willing to try new things.

“It’s so exciting to have colleagues that are supportive but also push my boundaries,” she said. “They’re not afraid of a challenge here.”

Kingston, another New York native, is directing the Rishonim (Sunday school) program and Hebrew learning. She was ordained by HUC-JIR in May — and married in the same month! — and first connected with Beth El through HUC’s placement system.

“When [Rabbi Eisner] described his vision of the rabbinate, and some of the things going on here — like the Shabbat services our cantor Elana Jagoda puts on — it seemed like an incredibly creative, innovative approach to Jewish education,” Kingston said.

Schulman, who has a master’s in Jewish education, also was ordained by HUC in May and married in the spring. Originally from Portland, Ore., she began her professional career at a congregation in Seattle.

“I’m a West Coaster through and through, and I was so excited to have the opportunity to move to the Bay Area,” says Schulman, who will direct the teen program and retreats.

As for the hiring of three female rabbis at once, the consensus is that it wasn’t based on gender.

“My generation of rabbinic students and rabbis is entering a phase where gender is not the first thing you notice,” Schulman said. “It’s not such a big deal anymore. There were so many women in my classes at Hebrew Union College, [this] just wasn’t that surprising to me.”

“My class had more women than men in it,” echoed Kingston.

Eisner, the senior rabbi, noted that he personally interviewed more than 50 candidates for the three open positions.

“We went out and found the people who were the best fit for us,” he said. “And it turned out to be these exceptional rabbis, who all just happen to be women.”

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.