September 20, 2019

Acting rabbi brings rebirth to 1920s shul

For more than 35 years, Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock existed without a rabbi. No longer.

This month, Susan Goldberg became the acting rabbi of what is believed to be the city’s second-oldest shul still operating out of its original location.

For Temple Beth Israel (TBI), the addition signals the latest step in a rebirth that has seen membership triple in the past few years. For Goldberg, 37, it is the latest chapter in a unique story.

“I’m an unlikely rabbi,” she said.

This is not to say that her family doesn’t have strong Jewish roots. Her great-grandfather may have been the first kosher butcher in Los Angeles, she said.

But for the Goldberg clan, Jewish identity was always political, not theological. Her father, longtime community lawyer Art Goldberg, was a leader of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in the ’60s. Her mother, Ruth Beaglehole, established the Center for Nonviolent Education and Parenting, now known as Echo Parenting and Education. And her aunt, Jackie Goldberg, served as LAUSD school board president, an L.A. city councilwoman and state assemblywoman.

“Their Jewishness came from their work in the world trying to make the world a better place,” Goldberg said. “That’s what it meant to be Jewish. That was the core of our identity.”

No one would have guessed that Goldberg would turn to a religious life when she enrolled in a dance conservatory and later embarked on a decade-long professional career that took her around the globe. It was during this time, however, that she visited numerous synagogues, took some classes and discovered another side of Judaism.

“There’s a lot of real beauty and depth in the tradition that hasn’t always been cared for and shared,” she said. “I think part of what happened is there was a watering down of the tradition in my parents’ generation.”

After settling in Eagle Rock, she enrolled in rabbinical school at the transdenominational Academy for Jewish Religion, California, and visited TBI with her family. When the person leading Friday night services went on vacation, they asked her to fill in.

The rest is history. While Goldberg continued her rabbinic studies — she is in her fifth and final year — she also started to lead some Friday night and family services,  High Holy Days services and more. Last year, she completed an internship at the congregation, too.

Still, the hiring of Goldberg was a big deal at TBI. Founded in the 1920s, the small independent synagogue with roots in the Conservative movement hadn’t had a rabbi on a regular basis since the last one died in the 1970s. For decades it relied on visiting rabbis to conduct High Holy Days services and knowledgeable lay leaders, along with a cantor, for Saturday morning services.

“Walking into a service was like walking back into about 1955,” said Bill Fishman, TBI’s president. “It was a very heartfelt, authentic Conservative Judaism kind of caught in amber.”

An aging shul known for its independence and warmth, there were times that TBI struggled to scrape up a minyan.

More recently, demographic changes in the area have introduced younger — and often intermarried — families to the neighborhood. TBI, whose members like to call it “Temple Beth Haimish” — haimish is Yiddish for homey or unpretentious — has made a point to welcome them. Membership has skyrocketed from 40 member families to 120 over just a few years, Fishman said.

Despite trepidation among some members about whether a rabbi was needed, Ed Leibowitz, who organizes family services, said the time had come and Goldberg was exactly the right person for the job.

“There really wasn’t that spiritual direction as far as introducing a new generation into the faith and connecting the older generation to the new one,” Leibowitz said. “Susan’s really been spectacular in that.”

Fishman agreed.

“She’s got this background of bringing people together,” he said.

An acting rabbi for now, Goldberg will be ordained in May. That’s when the next big question comes up.

“Can we pull enough money to have a rabbinic presence?” Fishman asked. “The answer is: We don’t know. We’re doing what we can to raise money however we can.”

While the synagogue was able to raise enough funds to hire Goldberg for this year on a part-time basis, the congregation remains small, and dues are low.

But that’s a worry for another day. For now, everything is just about perfect for Goldberg.

“The things happening at the temple now are so exciting,” she said. “There’s this beautiful return to get things going at this temple, and it’s been beautiful to be part of it.”