Peter Rubinstein, who last week announced his decision to step down in 15 months as senior rabbi of Central Synagogue, one of the leading Reform congregations in the U.S., almost talked himself out of the job before he was hired in 1991.
As a rabbi in San Francisco at the time, he told the ritual committee of Central, a classical Reform congregation founded in 1846, that if he became senior rabbi he planned to wear a kipa and prayer shawl, and not the traditional robe, while leading services.
Informed that Central’s clergy did not wear head coverings, he recalled the other day, “I told them that we’d just spent the evening talking about Reform Judaism, which allows people to make decisions about ritual, informed by education, and that applies to me as well.” He said he was flying back to San Francisco the next morning and suggested the committee have a discussion, “not about me but about who you are as a Reform congregation, and after that, I’ll either have a place here or not.”
The decision was made to go with Rabbi Rubinstein, and he has not only had “a place” at Central since the summer of 1991, but has led its growth to more than 2,000 households — double what it was when he arrived. Indeed, the congregation, known for its vibrant worship services and highly active educational programs for adults and children, decided to cap its growth in 2007. It now has a two-to-three-year waiting list of several hundred, quite a statement at a time when liberal synagogues around the country are losing members.
A hallmark of Central under Rabbi Rubinstein has been increased ritual observance, with most of the service now in Hebrew, and increasing experimentation with music and form.
The rabbi, who will have begun his eighth decade by the time he steps down at the end of June 2014, said his decision was based on wanting to spend more time with his family. “But I believe there is another chapter for me,” he said. And while he did not state any specific plans about the future, he said “there is more for me to do in service to the Jewish community without the level of schedules I am presently keeping.”
In a letter informing the congregation of the transition, Central’s president, David Edelson, noted that “it is time to appreciate how strong and vibrant Central is today, largely thanks to Rabbi Rubinstein’s vision and leadership. And it is time to focus on the possibilities ahead for Central, building on the astounding foundation created by our beloved senior rabbi.”
Edelson noted that the congregation’s popular senior cantor, Angela Buchdahl, has asked to be considered for the senior rabbi position and that “we will consider her candidacy seriously.”
Rabbi Rubinstein, who among his many honors was ranked No. 3 in Newsweek’s 2012 list of “America’s 50 Most Influential Rabbis,” said that at the top of a list of 40 principles of organizational leadership that he has written, the first is: “It is better to be effective than ‘right.’ This doesn’t mean that you can’t be both, but energy should be expended on the former.”
He said he believes a rabbi’s authority is increased “by having people buy into the rabbi’s vision,” and his is “to lead by being bold.”
His goal all along, he said, was not to increase membership per se but to build personal relationships with each congregant. “Be present with every person, actually pay attention, become part of their life. Do the right thing for the congregation. If you do, they will come.”
Looking ahead, the rabbi said, “this next year will be for accomplishing things yet unimagined.”