Torah, Tradition, and Transition

Four years after stepping down from the top position at Temple Emanu-El, Rabbi Stephen Pearce shows no signs of slowing down.

By Paul Wilner

When Stephen Pearce “retired” in 2013 from his position as the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Senior Rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El, he could be pardoned for wanting to kick back and reflect.

Named three successive times by Newsweek as one of the most successful rabbis in the United States, he had grown membership in the prestigious congregation from 1,400 households in 1993 to 2,100 households 20 years later. Despite leaving Emanu-El full-time, Pearce was uninterested in the traditional perks of a life of leisure—golf, travel, more golf.

“Subsequent to my retirement, I spent two years teaching at the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley,” he says. “I’ve also been teaching an Interfaith Writing Workshop at Kenyon College for the last three summers and I teach one semester a year at the Fromm Institute at USF. This spring, I will be teaching on the early prophets.”

As if that weren’t enough, he’s involved with “Ten Minutes of Torah,” a program of the Union for Reform Judaism that provides online explications of biblical text going out to 60,000 people weekly. (His segments are on the book of Genesis.) He also serves as board chairman of the Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good at USF and serves on the campaign committee of the San Francisco–Marin Food Bank, while still retaining his position as Senior Rabbi at Emanu-El.

“I’m just as busy as ever,” Pearce says, with a laugh.

Still, he thought it was important to make a clean break from Emanu-El.

“I’ve seen places where people overstayed their welcome, so I didn’t want to do that,” he explains. “I loved what I did—my only problem was that I did too much of it. My successors [the husband/wife team of Rabbi Beth and Jonathan Singer] are doing a very good job. I even went to Hawaii on my first High Holy Days after leaving, because I didn’t want them to be in my shadow.”

He continues, “These days, I rarely go into the building except to sneak into my office. I told them I want to be the oldest assistant rabbi in the United States!”

He makes sure he is still available if other clergy are on vacation—presiding over baby namings, funerals or other events as needed. When he took over the post, it was in the aftermath of a sexual harassment scandal involving his predecessor, Rabbi Robert Kirschner, who stepped down and subsequently apologized following accusations of untoward conduct to parishioners that brings to mind today’s headlines.

“They wanted a healer to come in,” Pearce recalls. “I was a 47-year-old man who was happily married, with two children, and a history of healing other congregations. Every congregation I’d been in had had a previous disaster, so when I arrived, even if you said, ‘Good morning’ to people, it was a big deal.”

Among his major decisions was hiring Sydney Mintz, who founded the congregation’s Late Shabbat Young Adult Program. “The board asked me to go out and get an assistant rabbi,” he recalls, “but when they found out she was lesbian, they asked me, ‘Why didn’t you tell us?’ I said, ‘First of all, you didn’t ask, and second of all, you asked me to get the best rabbi, and that’s what I did.’ She has done a great job and is beloved by the congregation.”

Pearce, who has a degree in counseling from St. John’s University, found that his psychological training came in handy. “Being a senior rabbi is like being a conductor of an orchestra, not a soloist,” he muses. “It’s important to let others shine. We went from being a top-down, imperious rabbinate to one that was collaborative. When I came in, assistant rabbis would come in, spend two or three years and then be gone. I told the board they were not getting any value on their investment. The first year, they’d learn the job, the second year they’d do it and the third year, they’d be looking for a job—it didn’t make sense.”

These days, Pearce spends more time with his wife, Laurie, who teaches Near Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley, and their children, Sara, who teaches in New York University’s Spanish-Portuguese program, and Michael, who’s enrolled in MIT’s big data program.

But he shows no signs of taking it easy.

“In the spring, I’ll have an increased role at Emanu-El, with an annual lecture, followed by a series of classes, and another class on raising a Jewish child.” He adds, with a laugh, “My successors are in their fifth year now, so I think it’s safe.”

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