In between his daily duties as Rav at Congregation Young Israel of Orange County, Rabbi Dov Fischer also wears a lot of other hats (and they’re not always yarmulkes).
For instance, the New York native writes for numerous publications around the globe, he works closely with his wife, Rebbetzin Ellen, to bring new classes and more to the shul, and, if that’s not enough, he just celebrated his daughter’s recent wedding nuptials.
Busy yes, but never too busy to share what life is like as the rabbi of the Orthodox synagogue, a place that seems to be growing as we speak.
He has been the rabbi since 2008 at YIOC, which conducts a full range of Shabbat services, Jewish-study and Torah classes, Jewish social programs and celebrations, and a part-time yeshiva for teen boys to deal with the crisis in teen Jewish education. Rabbi Fischer, who was previously at Beth Jacob in Irvine and many more posts over the course of his lengthy career, recently shared some of his thoughts with OC Jewish Life, along with a keen sense of East Coast humor. Read on.
Q: Why did you become a rabbi?
A: I was reared in a Modern Orthodox family in Brooklyn, and I was a typical kid who loved baseball and other spectator sports. My world changed when my dad died from leukemia at age 45 … When my dad died, I looked far and wide for a Big Brother to have as a friend. There was none – except for a rabbi, my ninth grade Chumash and Rashi teacher, with whom I grew increasingly close in high school. Then, seeking yet another Big Brother, one Saturday afternoon, I summoned up the gumption to walk over to the home of my shul rabbi, to talk to him. Only as his wife called him downstairs, did I realize, I unthinkingly had interrupted his Shabbat nap. Yet, he was warm and responsive. Over the next few years, I found that the warmest, kindest, most outgoing and sincerely giving people in my universe were rabbis: that high school rabbi, that shul rabbi, other shul rabbis.
Q: So, becoming a rabbi was never really in the cards …
A: My parents had socialized me to consider being a doctor or, at least, a lawyer. I attended Columbia University and majored in political science, planning on a legal career. The undergraduate body of Columbia elected me to represent them in the University Senate. But, as my college years ended, when the time came for me to make a final decision – law school at Columbia or rabbinical school at Yeshiva University – my heart and soul impelled me to become a rabbi.
Q: How does serving as a rabbi in California differ from the East Coast?
A: First of all, everyone here has strange accents – they pronounce “Rs” where they appear in the words. Back where I grew up, you nevuh pronounced the ‘r’ in New Yawk – and you made up for it by putting it at the end of other words – like my sistuh Rhonder. More to the point, the East Coast, particularly in parts of New York City like Brooklyn, Queens, and parts of Long Island and Westchester, is the American Jewish epicenter. There are many shuls on every block in some communities, many yeshiva day schools, and many kosher restaurants. By contrast, Orange County is a challenge; we do not have a single kosher restaurant in a county that is home to 100,000 Jews.
Q: What do you make of our Jewish educational offerings?
A: Likewise, the East Coast has a variety of yeshivas and serious Jewish educational options. By contrast, Orange County has limited Jewish educational offerings … The Hebrew Academy of Huntington Beach is nearly half an hour north of Irvine, the only Jewish school in the county where actual Chumash and Rashi text are taught. Even so, their boys’ school ends with eighth grade – no high school.
Q: These are obviously challenges …
A: The lack of significant Jewish academic resources for young people in Orange County reflects itself most sadly in that most of the temples and synagogues lose their boys soon after Bar Mitzvah. So, that is a wonderful challenge for the future: to create an Orthodox day school and yeshiva high school in Irvine.
Q: What is it like working so closely with your wife, Ellen?
A: I am blessed that my wife is not only my best friend and best pal – gets my puns, laughs at my jokes, reads my writings, watches House and Arrested Development with me – but she is a 100 percent partner in our shul experience. On one hand, the partnership is evident during the High Holidays, when Ellen and I do a joint Ask the Rabbi and the Rebbetzin – But Not at the Same Time session together. We do singles programs at which we speak and lead, taking turns or talking over each other, as the mood strikes.
Q: Why should Jews in the OC be more open to being Jews?
A: There are now 100,000 Jews in the OC … We should look at our children and at our institutions that educate them, and we should ask ourselves: Are our temples filled on Friday nights and Saturdays with high-schoolers and collegiates in their late teens and early 20s who come to worship and know how to pray? Or have we become just one more Bar Mitzvah Factory, where we kiss the 12-year-old girl and 13-year-old boy on the head and remind them that we will be available when they stop in next time, 10 years from now, when it is time for them to marry?