Opinions | 40 years later, my Northern California promised land flourishes

Moses and the Israelites wandered for 40 years in the wilderness getting ready to enter the Promised Land. As they did, I wonder what crossed their minds. It’s hard to imagine, but I would be willing to bet that for those who lived through the wandering — 40 years was a very long time.

For a moment, think back to what you were doing 40 years ago. Even if you cannot remember specifics, think back about how different the world was some 40 years ago in 1975.

I know what was going on in my life 40 years ago, because I had just finished my rabbinic training at the Jewish Theological Seminary and was moving to Northern California where I have lived and worked ever since. I moved to this community, which some of my JTS friends and colleagues and even some people who lived here in Northern California called a wilderness, not a desert like the Sinai desert, but in this case, a Jewish wilderness.

During the past 40 years, I’ve done my share of wandering around the Bay Area, three jobs in three different communities — I’ve also done a lot of wondering about our Jewish community and Jewish life in our community. I’ve observed lots of Jewish changes in our community — changes that in 1975, I could never have imagined happening. These changes give me hope for the next 40 years of our Jewish community.


During the past 40 years, the building and development of Jewish day schools and Jewish community centers is mind-boggling, not to mention the Contemporary Jewish Museum and the evolution of the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, formerly the Judah L. Magnes Museum. As a user of these institutions, I know personally about their impact. My kids were at a day school with 60 to 80 other students; today that day school now has an enrollment of more than 200. Additionally, the growth and expansion of the Jewish studies departments and programs at such local universities as U.C. Berkeley Stanford, San Francisco State, the Graduate Theological Union and University of San Francisco is remarkable.

Anyone who’s been touched by synagogue life cannot but be moved by the amazing changes in our community’s synagogues during these 40 years. Buildings have been built and/or remodeled. Programming in general and lifelong learning in particular has in many cases been revisioned, expanded and reoriented to touch children, adults and families alike, whether they be members of synagogues or members of the community at large.

Forty years ago, synagogues were at best cordial with one another, rarely collaborating, too afraid of losing members. Being the rabbi of a smallish synagogue, I remember struggling when it felt that I was on my own. Today, collaborations among synagogues as well as between synagogues and other Jewish community institutions are becoming the norm rather than the exception. It’s clear that today’s leaders understand that working together is the only way to reach the thousands of Jews in the Bay Area who like our ancestors of old, truly are wandering, trying to find their way from the wilderness to whatever might become their promised land.

For those who have been paying close attention to the fabric of our Jewish community, consider all the entrepreneurial activities that are being led by some of the younger generation — all the Jewish startups that have sprung up during the last few years and the impact these startups are having on our community, young and old alike. Our community is one of, if not the center of Jewish creativity in the United States. When I interact with colleagues from across the country, they often ask, what’s our latest local Jewish startup.

Finally, think about the evolution of Jewish philanthropy during the last 40 years. From teen foundations to planned giving, from small and large donors alike, the nature of giving is changing, and its evolution will help to ensure the future of our Jewish community. And what’s particularly meaningful for me is that I’m in a position to do the hands-on work that’s helping our community’s institutions fulfill their planned-giving opportunities.

There’s lots that could be better, but there’s lots that is better than many seem to believe, or at least, 40 years into my Bay Area rabbinic career, that’s how I’m feeling.

At the end of his 40-year career of wandering, Moses finished his service in this world and went on to serve God in the next world. I feel kind of lucky that I don’t have to call it quits yet I was able to enter my promised land of  Northern California 40 years ago. I hope that as long as I am here, I’ll continue to help our community evolve and grow.

Rabbi Marvin Goodman is executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California.