Q & A With Rabbi Robert Gan

Rabbi Robert Gan, 63, has been senior rabbi at Temple Isaiah, an 850-family member Reform congregation on Pico Boulevard, for more than 30 years. At Temple Isaiah, Gan demonstrated his commitment to social justice, inviting such speakers as Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to address his congregation. This year, Gan begins his newest role, as president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, an agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles that brings together 250 rabbis from all denominations. Gan spoke to The Journal about his plans for his new position, and the problems facing the Jewish world today.

Jewish Journal: What is the role of the Board of Rabbis in the community?

Rabbi Gan: The Board of Rabbis represents all the different groups in the community. We provide chaplains for hospitals and prisons; we have a leadership-training program. We are, hopefully, a voice of conscience, a voice that gives some sense of priority to Jewish issues in our community.

JJ: What do you hope to accomplish during your tenure at the Board of Rabbis?

RG: Well, first of all, I think that the Board of Rabbis suffers from one of problems of the larger Jewish community, which is its general geography. The community is so large and so spread out, that it is difficult to create a sense of collegiality and inclusiveness among members of the Board of Rabbis, which is something I hope to do in the coming years. We are trying to meet every other month, and to also have programs that will bring everyone together.

The other hope that I have is to attempt to be the voice of the Jewish community when issues arise that need some kind of a rabbinic response. We represent the vast variety of Jews in Southern California, and hopefully we can have some kind of moral persuasion.

JJ: Can you give an example of the kind of issues that you will respond to?

RG: Right now we are submitting something for people look at regarding Proposition 54, which has to do with banning the gathering of data in ethnic and minority communities. We think that data-gathering is necessary to get a picture of the community, and it is important for education and health needs, and stopping the State’s ability to help the various ethnic and racial groups through collecting important and useful information and implementing programs to assist them is wrong.

JJ: Are you concerned that because the rabbis in the Board of Rabbis come from so many different denominations, that it will be difficult to create a consensus?

RG: I think we all have different positions on issues of religious expression, which is important and wonderful, but I think there are issues that are larger than individual denominations that we should be able to speak to.

JJ: What do you see as the main strengths of the Los Angeles Jewish community?

RG: Well, it has a lot of Jews. It’s the second-largest Jewish community in the country, so it has enormous potential for involvement and affiliation and giving support. There is a lot of untapped potential. We live in an area that is open to creativity and experimentation to Jewish life.

JJ: As a rabbi, what are you most passionate about, and why?

RG: When I first came here as a young rabbi, I was very much involved in Jewish family life, and created all kinds of programs for adults and children together. We still do that in our congregation — adults and children get together to learn and study.

I am also part of a congregation that has a long history of activity in the area of social action and social justice, which is a passion of mine as well. And I love to be involved with interfaith relations, I think that contact with one another and being able to learn from one another is very important.

JJ: What was your Rosh Hashanah sermon about?

RG: I am struggling with my sense that people seeing the world as being less secure, and perhaps less hopeful than they thought, even a sense of malaise on some level. I talked about the fact that we are part of a faith that affirms life, and in spite of all that we have endured as a people, we will continue to live and thrive. We have resources in Jewish life and the community that are life-affirming and important.

JJ: What do you think that the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox can all agree on, religiously speaking?

RG: I think that we all agree that we are committed to sustaining Jewish life and the Jewish people, and we all do so in our own particular ways.

JJ: And its weaknesses?

RG: I think the strengths become the weaknesses of the Jewish community, because we haven’t been able to mobilize and involve people in the way that we should.

JJ: What do you think the Jewish community should be most concerned about?

RG: I think we are always concerned about continuity and the continued vibrancy of Jewish life. All of us are concerned with bringing people to understand the beauty of the tradition that we are a part of, and how it speaks to issues of the larger world, in terms of tikkun olam.