HomeJune 2012A Match That’s as Good as It Gets

A Match That’s as Good as It Gets

Rabbi Stephen J. Einstein thinks his 36-year tenure at Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley has been “as good a match between a person and a life’s work as you can imagine.”  He views his impending retirement with mixed emotions but with a great deal of optimism for the congregation and for himself.
Einstein, who has been the rabbi of B’nai Tzedek since its founding in 1976, said that he still thinks of it as a new congregation.  He vividly remembers selecting the site for the building and making the dream a reality.  While he has had to watch himself age by looking at pictures of confirmation classes on the walls, he has enjoyed taking the journey with many of the congregational families.  “I am the only rabbi some of these people have ever known,” he said.
As rabbi emeritus, he will help to ease the transition of the congregation, helping his successors – first an interim rabbi and then a new rabbi chosen by a search committee – to establish connections with the congregants.  Einstein and his wife, Robin, whom he calls the “unsung hero of the congregation,” will stay in the same Fountain Valley home where they raised their four children and continue to relate to the many friends they have made along the way.
Describing himself as “very much a community person,” Rabbi Einstein will continue with his many activities.  “The difference is that I’ll be doing one thing a day instead of ten, having Sundays and evenings free and having a chance to travel,” he said.
Currently, Rabbi Einstein is chair of the ethics committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and also serves on its ethics process review committee.  He is on the governing board of the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, serving as S’gan Av Bet Din (associate director).
Since 1976, Rabbi Einstein has taught the community-wide Introduction to Judaism course. He is the co-editor of Introduction to Judaism: A Sourcebook (New York: URJ Press, 1999) which is used nationally for basic Judaism courses.  He is co-author of Every Person’s Guide to Judaism (New York: URJ Press, 1989).  He is the co-chair of Reform Judaism’s Commission on Outreach, Membership and Sacred Community.
Rabbi Einstein teaches at California State University, Fullerton, in the Department of Comparative Religion.  He is a chaplain for the Fountain Valley Police Department, president of the Greater Huntington Beach Interfaith Council, on the board of Clue (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice), on the Interfaith Outreach Committee of the Alzheimer’s Association of Orange County and is a member of the Catholic-Jewish Dialogue.  He is planning to mentor rabbinical students at the Los Angeles Campus of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion.
Born and raised in Southern California, Rabbi Einstein spent his early years in Pacoima, which has a small, spread-out Jewish population like that of Orange County.  The synagogue was not a big factor in his parents’ lives until his first grade teacher asked his mother to do a program on Chanukah.  She asked a local rabbi for help, and the rabbi got the family more and more involved in the synagogue.  By the end of high school, Rabbi Einstein knew what he was going to do with his life.
“A Methodist friend wrote in my high school yearbook, ‘God has taken hold of you and won’t let go.’  Almost fifty years later, it seems that she was right,” he said.
A cum laude – Phi Beta Kappa graduate of UCLA, Einstein married Robin at the end of college.  In 1971 he was ordained at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, where he also earned his doctorate many years later.  In recognition of his years of service to the Jewish community, the College-Institute awarded him an honorary doctorate as well.
Rabbi Einstein’s first pulpit was in Parsippany, New Jersey.  Wanting to come back to the west coast, he accepted a position at a congregation in Westminster, which “was not a great match,” he said.  Then he was asked to be the rabbi of a new congregation that was starting, but he had decided to go to law school.  He thought he would just come in and help the fledgling congregation, but it grew so quickly that he had to make a decision.
Knowing that he would never have the passion for law that he had for the rabbinate, Rabbi Einstein threw himself into every aspect of building the congregation.  With a small staff and a group of committed lay leaders, the congregation focused on creating connections.
One of the founders of the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) of Orange County, a past president and an honoree, Rabbi Einstein is proud that former BJE directors have told him how different the students from his congregation are from other teens. “It’s a small school where we take pride in instilling a love of being Jewish in our kids,” he said.  “They know Judaism matters and that they matter.  The kids have a personal connection with the rabbi, get personal attention and are treated as people.”
In fact, the congregation instills the same feeling in adults, according to Rabbi Einstein, who makes a point of talking to congregants before the service begins.  He feels that his job is not to get himself ready for the service but to get the congregants ready for it.
“We welcome everybody and do everything in terms of finances so that people can be here,” he concluded.  “Just as you count people for a minyan, everybody counts and everybody matters at B’nai Tzedek.  Every congregation has a culture.  Rabbis who follow me will make changes, but the culture will stay the same, because people love being at B’nai Tzedek.”


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