Left: Jacob Kaplan-Lipkin as a bar mitzvah with Cantor Doron Shapira at Peninsula Sinai in Congregation, 2010. Right: Years later, he's getting ready to help lead Peninsula Sinai for the High Holidays.
Left: Jacob Kaplan-Lipkin as a bar mitzvah with Cantor Doron Shapira at Peninsula Sinai in Congregation, 2010. Right: Years later, he's getting ready to help lead Peninsula Sinai for the High Holidays.

As a kid he loved his Foster City synagogue. This High Holidays, he’s going to help lead it.

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A young boy loves going to synagogue. He brings his family there, he jumps at participating, he becomes a regular. He lives and breathes Judaism. So who’s surprised when he decides to become a rabbi? No one, especially the boy himself.

“This has always been my plan. I’ve known since I was 8 that I was going to be a rabbi,” said Jacob Kaplan-Lipkin, 24, who starts a five-year course of study at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York next week.

To make it even more poignant, that boy — now a man — will step up to the bimah as the “rabbinic presence” for the High Holidays this year to stand alongside one of his longtime mentors, Cantor Doron Shapira, at his home synagogue, Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City.

“It’s a tall task,” Kaplan-Lipkin said. “I feel I’m privileged to be both leader and congregant. This is my community.”

Kaplan-Lipkin’s journey from shul-loving kid to bar mitzvah to rabbi makes perfect sense to Shapira, who has known him since he was a child. He is “wise beyond his years” and was “kind of a junior rabbi in a way, throughout the years,” Shapira said. “Nothing about this surprises me.”

Kaplan-Lipkin said he’s always been drawn to Judaism, partly through an inner drive that has been part of him as long as he can remember.

“In elementary school I was the one who started dragging my family to shul on a regular basis,” he said.

But that inner drive also has something to do with his background. His father is a Bay Area native, but his mother and her relatives immigrated from the Soviet Union in 1978. With the practice of Judaism repressed in that country, the open expression of faith was particularly important to his family.

This has always been my plan. I’ve known since I was 8 that I was going to be a rabbi.

On his mother’s side, “I’m the first person to pray freely,” he said. “I grew up with that as such a profound inherited memory.”

He attended Jewish day schools on the Peninsula — Wornick, Gideon Hausner and Kehillah — and found deep community and a sense of home at PSC, something that, rabbi-like, he illustrated with an anecdote. When Kaplan-Lipkin was in eighth grade, he suffered a concussion that led to debilitating headaches. They were constant, except for when he went to services at his Conservative synagogue. There, they vanished.

“It was just a supernatural sense of calm and comfort,” he remembered.

After graduating from Stanford, Kaplan-Lipkin moved to New York, where he worked for Jewish nonprofit Dorot. Now, he’s finally taking the step he’s been anticipating all his life — becoming an educator, learner and lover of Torah as a full-time job.

“I’m really excited,” he said. “I’m beyond excited! It’s something I’ve dreamt about for 15 years now.”

As an intern, he’ll be on the bimah at PSC during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, working and praying alongside his mentor Shapira. Longtime Rabbi Corey Helfand left PSC this year after 10 years with the synagogue. While Shapira has been holding down the fort since, he said it will be good to have help for the holiday season.

“We felt that we did need some rabbinic presence,” Shapira said. “It’s hard to be both rabbi and cantor.”

While PSC did holiday services on Zoom last year, this year it will be in person, with a livestream option. Shapira said the uncertainties and stresses of the pandemic made it even more important for the community to have familiar faces leading the services.

“He’s well known and a beloved person in our community,” Shapira said. “He’s not someone we have to introduce.”

For Kaplan-Lipkin, this holiday will have special meaning, with his large Bay Area family in attendance and on the brink of taking this step toward the goal he’s had in his mind for so long.

“I do feel personally called,” he said. “This is what I want to do in the world.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.