From West to East: Rabbis Bring California Cool to N.Y.C.

Congregations in New York are increasingly hiring West Coast rabbis, who bring in a greater commitment to social justice and openness to experimentation.

Julie Markes

Being a rabbi in New York City has its perks: Walking to your synagogue, for one thing, instead of sitting in a car commuting two hours a day, as Rabbi Rachel Timoner used to do when she lived in Los Angeles.

Timoner, her wife and their two young sons moved to Brooklyn’s Congregation Beth Elohim this summer from L.A., where she served as associate rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple following her ordination in 2009. 

Now Timoner walks her family’s two dogs in leafy Prospect Park before heading a few blocks down brownstone-lined streets to the office. It’s a change she appreciates for multiple reasons.

“You can’t underestimate the significance of being a walking community for synagogue life,” Timoner, a rising star in the Reform movement rabbinate, told Haaretz. Beth Elohim has about 1,000 member households.

“It means that hundreds, if not thousands, of people are in the building every day. It’s actually a lived community center in a way that doesn’t happen in L.A. because you can’t convene as easily. Here I walk down the street and run into congregants everywhere. In a cafe, in the park walking my dogs. It connects us to each other organically. In L.A. the only connections you have [with fellow congregants] are on Friday nights or Saturday mornings,” she says.

Timoner isn’t the only rabbi to move from L.A. to New York over the summer. Central Synagogue, a large Reform congregation in midtown Manhattan, brought in two new rabbis: Stephanie Kolin and Rebecca Rosenthal.

Though both Kolin and Rosenthal are Manhattan natives who spent a few years sojourning in California, all three rabbis bring an L.A.-ish-ness that is equal parts commitment to social justice and openness to the new and experimental, say those who know them.

Max Orenstein for Central Synagogue

“In L.A. I learned creativity and flexibility,” Kolin tells Haaretz. “Congregations, rabbis and lay leaders there are open to trying new things.”

One example: A dozen Jewish congregations groups gathered together last Tisha B’Av “to learn, to pray and to strategize on social justice action,” says Kolin, who is also viewed as a rising star of the Reform rabbinate.

“Tisha B’Av is definitely a minor day in most Reform communities,” she notes. “It’s not your usual Reform gathering day.” While traditionally the holiday recalls the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, “we reinterpreted it as the modern destruction of our cities, as a way to grieve for what’s broken and hope for what can be built,” says Kolin. “It is an ‘out the box’ way of thinking.”

In L.A. “there’s a large spirit of experimentation and alternate pathways into Jewish connection,” says Esther Kustanowitz, a New York-area native who moved to L.A. in 2008 and is a close friend of Kolin’s. “The pace of life out here is very different," Kustanowitz, a writer and editorial director of Mayim Bialik’s new website GrokNation says.

"There’s a lot more contemplative, meditative value given to stretching, to silence, to music, that doesn’t always work its way into the frenetic pace of New York City.”

Kolin moved to New York with her wife of one year and is now Central Synagogue’s associate rabbi. In L.A. she was co-director of the Reform movement’s Just Congregations community organizing initiative, and with Timoner founded Reform CA, which brings together 120 Reform rabbis throughout the state to work jointly on matters of common civic concern.

Reform CA had a big recent win, says Timoner. After conducting extensive one-on-one interviews with rabbis and congregants about the California they envision, Reform CA decided to focus on getting a train built to transport people from one end of L.A.’s urban sprawl to the other.

A train would allow both the rich and the poor to cross their city more efficiently, permit domestic and other workers to more easily get to their jobs, get 10,000 cars off the road and reduce pollution, Timoner told Haaretz. Reform CA got major civic stakeholders to sign on, and now a measure to approve the train will be on the city’s 2016 election ballot.

That and other issues addressed by Reform CA, including affordable housing and ending racial profiling by police, “were big successes,” says Timoner. “Reform CA is going strong.”

That social justice focus is part of what both Timoner and Kolin plan to bring to their new congregations.

Rabbi Rebecca Rosenthal, an ordained Conservative rabbi, is Central Synagogue’s new director of youth and family education. She was the director of education at Ikar, the innovative L.A. congregation run by Rabbi Sharon Brous. Rosenthal grew up on the Upper West Side and is glad to be back with her husband and their three young children.

Central has 2,300 member households and a waiting list of those wanting to join.

There are definite differences in approach between synagogues in the two cities, Rosenthal says. “In L.A. people focus a lot on immersive experiences, retreats, doing things with the whole family,” she says. “Maybe it has to do with the weather, but that particular approach hasn’t come to NY quite yet. It feels different here. It feels more chill out in L.A., NY feels more formal, but it’s not just Judaism, it’s everything.”

“There’s a lot of interesting, creative things happening in L.A., and I’m trying to bring some of them to the East Coast. There’s a concentrated Jewish vibe in NY that doesn’t exist in L.A., and I want to take advantage of that,” said Rosenthal. “This is such a Jewish hub.”

"Stephanie and Rebecca actually brought us the best of both coasts since they've worked effectively in L.A., with its sense of reinvention and imagination, but both grew up in New York City, with its sense of history and concreteness,” Angela Buchdahl, Central Synagogue’s senior rabbi, tells Haaretz.  “Their transition has been unusually seamless and exciting.” 

While she misses her L.A. community, “New York is the place where I understand the rhythm best,” says Kolin, who grew up in Stuyvesant Town on Manhattan’s East side. “My heart beats at the same rhythm the city moves.”

But moving here has brought one new challenge: figuring out what to do with her car now that she no longer needs it.