Q&A: Rabbi Allen Bennett

Q&A: Rabbi Allen Bennett

Michele Ellson
Rabbi Allen Bennett. Courtesy of Temple Israel.

Sixteen years ago, Allen Bennett signed on for the proverbial three-hour tour at Alameda’s Temple Israel, offering to fill in for a few months while the temple’s leadership looked for a new rabbi. Now he’s retiring to a life of volunteerism, activism – and visits to the nation’s parks. It’s a rich reward for someone who moved to the Bay Area in pursuit of a degree he never earned but ultimately lent his time to a long list of interfaith and civic activities, building strong political and community connections in San Francisco (he’s was San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk’s rabbi), where he still lives, and here on the Island. He’ll be feted throughout the month of May, starting Sunday with a gala dinner at Temple Beth Jacob in Oakland to be emceed by KQED’s Michael Krasny.

How did you end up in Alameda? And why did you stay?
In 1996 I was the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Greater East Bay. And my job description was about to change, because they were going to start asking me to help raise money. And I didn’t want to do that. I was starting to cast about, looking for work in hospital chaplaincy. No jobs were on the horizon, it was getting more and more desperate. One day Marc Klein, then the editor and publisher of what was then called the Jewish Bulletin, which is now called the j weekly, called me to say, ‘Our rabbi has unexpectedly announced that she’s leaving. And it’s too late in the year to go through any legitimate placement process. Would you be willing to take this job on an interim, part time basis?’ Interim was supposed to be eight months, and part time was 50 percent time. And 16 years later, I am retiring from this job. One of the primary reasons (I stayed) was that I really liked the people. The folks were just very warm and very nice and sort of like eager, I think was the word.

I gather you got involved in issues locally when you came here. Can you detail your involvement?
It’s hard for me to even remember. One of the most recent things was getting the curriculum passed which allowed for the teaching of basic human dignity in the lower grades. I serve currently on the police chief’s community task force. I was sort of unofficially the late mayor Ralph Appezzato’s rabbi. He was offered a trip to Israel, and he called me, and we became best buddies. It sort of stayed that way until he died. He was a guy who tended to be socially conservative. He and I talked about stuff in ways – he would look at me and he would wink and I would say, ‘I can’t believe this is the way you see this.’ And by the end of the conversation he would say, ‘I can see that.’ It’s the kind of stuff I like to be involved with, the behind-the-scenes stuff. I don’t need my name to be in the news, as long as I can get the message where it belongs. If somebody sees me doing something publicly, it’s because someone else asked me to do it.

Has it been challenging to build a congregation here? Alameda doesn’t have a large Jewish population, and many of the more traditional Jews go to temple in Oakland.
It has a much bigger Jewish population than you can imagine. There’s a little bit of history that people don’t remember or don’t know that has determined how Temple Israel has evolved over the years. Temple Israel started in 1920. And they started as a more traditional synagogue. They didn’t affiliate with any denomination. Not everybody who lived in Alameda was interested in being in a traditional synagogue. The nearest reform synagogue was in Oakland. Lots and lots of people who lived in Alameda who wanted to be in a reform congregation went to Temple Sinai. It wasn’t until 1985 that Temple Israel identified itself and joined the reform movement. Just because it became a reform synagogue didn’t mean that people who had reform affiliations for 100 years were going to give them up. So there is a big swath of the liberal Jewish congregation that goes to Temple Sinai. When we became reform, the people who wanted something more traditional weren’t comfortable. People who came to Temple Israel expecting a more traditional congregation, it probably wasn’t traditional enough. When you combine that with other factors, you can see why we’re so challenged here.

The second factor is, when you see the population studies, 15 percent identify with some Jewish organization. On the East Coast, the number is much closer to 75 percent. So out here, for any number of reasons, the affiliation rate with Jewishly-identified institutions is terribly small. I think having the number of families we have is actually pretty good considering the pressures we have.

Is it a challenge to be Jewish here in the Bay Area, where it is fashionable to attack Israel and Jews and be more pro-Palestinian?
I think if you identify solidly as a Jew in the Bay Area, and you’re not a completely fringe lefty, it can be challenging to be publicly Jewish. It doesn’t have to be. The people who know me see me as left of center. I plan to live in Israel six months of the year. I’m not going there because I love the current government. I’m not going there because I agree with settlement policy. I’m going there because I love the concept of the country like I like the concept of America. Whenever I’m in either of those places I’m hoping to make the dream of those places better than they would be otherwise. I’m going to have the freedom and the time to make people more uncomfortable when they deny people civil rights and human rights and political rights and so on. To me that will be a dream come true to do something about that.

You were reportedly the first rabbi in the nation to come out. What was that like? And how did people react to the fact that you’re gay?
I think if you look at the big picture, there was sort of a cosmic yawn. There were some ripples of discontent, but the Earth didn’t stop turning on its axis. It would have conceivably been harder for me to get jobs had I looked for jobs that glory-seeking rabbis would have sought. There were people who very clearly and specifically told me that it was extremely destructive for me to be public about this. It was detrimental to the reform community, it was detrimental to the Jewish community. Over the years there have been some negative things, but overall, people couldn’t have cared less.

I think it may be important to say that my coming out was not of my intent. I’m not the one who instigated the process. I agreed to do this because the anti-Briggs initiative campaign thought my doing that would bring focus to the campaign in a way that would make it easier for them to beat Briggs. And at the last minute, the campaign said, ‘We’re not going to do this, because we think it will distract from the campaign.’ While that campaign was going on, there was a guy working for the Chronicle who was doing a series called Gays in the City. He did a story about me, but he used a pseudonym, waiting for the campaign to out me. When the campaign was over he called back and said, ‘Can I out you?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I guess.’ I am not a political being. I wasn’t looking at the long-term ramifications. My goal in the process has been to weigh, ‘Will this be helpful to anybody?’

What are some highlights from your time here in Alameda? Are there things you will miss about Alameda and Temple Israel?
I’m going to miss the people. One of the things that I have come to understand that I will miss, that I didn’t realize I was going to miss, was teaching Torah. It is way cool to sit down with a student and challenge the Bible and put it in context, and to be involved in that conversation. And even to deal with adults who are shocked by some of the things that I say about biblical criticism. Daring to ask hard questions about things people took as assumptions from childhood and saying, ‘It makes a great story but I don’t know if it ever happened.’ To make it more of a living breathing document – that is way cool.

What are your retirement plans? You told j you plan to visit national parks and be a better activist.
For three months a year, I will be volunteering for the liberal synagogue in Copenhagen, (though) not as a congregational rabbi. More as a consultant – helping them do stuff better that they are having trouble doing on their own. To help them do the things they need to do because they don’t have a rabbi. Between four and six months a year I hope to be in Jerusalem, volunteering at a variety of left-leaning non-governmental organizations that promote social justice and civil rights and so on. That will be seven to nine months a year in places I absolutely love.

What advice do you have for incoming Rabbi Barney Brickner?
Alameda is an island in space and time. Luxuriate in it to the greatest extent that you can.