Looking Back, Looking Forward At the End of a Long Tenureby Natalie Jacobs February 27, 2017
When he retires on March 5, Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal will give up his seat as San Diego’s currently longest-serving rabbi. With 29 years at Tifereth Israel in San Carlos, Rosenthal isn’t the longest-serving rabbi in our city’s history (that honor still rests with Rabbi Marty Lawson who served 36 years at Temple Emanu-El), but he’s still pretty proud, and frankly a bit surprised, that he lasted as long as he did.
I spoke with Rabbi Rosenthal in his office, piled with boxes, books and paperwork that he was rifling through in preparation for his big transition. We talked about what’s next for the synagogue, what’s next for his personal life, and a few fond memories of the events and programs he’s presided over. The following Q&A has been edited for length.
San Diego Jewish Journal:
Does someone like an associate rabbi come and take your place?
Rabbi Rosenthal: No, there’s no associate rabbi here, I’m the only rabbi. Our size, we don’t need another rabbi. The congregation is now actively looking for my successor.
SDJJ: It’s a nation wide search?
RR: Yes, and they’ve been working on it for about a year and a half now. The first year they spent thinking about what they want as far as a next rabbi and as a congregation. But they started the actual search after the High Holidays.
SDJJ: How long had you been considering retirement before you made the announcement?
RR: Since the day I started working here. [Smiles] I really can’t pinpoint when I started thinking about it. Seriously, probably the last couple of years, as I got closer to 65. My contract with the congregation runs for another couple of years but I decided it was a good time for me and a good time for the congregation to retire a little earlier than that.
SDJJ: Are there certain things going on in the congregation that make now a good time to retire?
RR: No, actually things are good. I’ve always wanted to retire at a high point rather than a low point. I have colleagues that were kind of gently encouraged to retire, when they thought they could or should be working longer. I never wanted it to be like that. I always wanted to go out when things were going good and I felt healthy and young enough to do something else with my life.
SDJJ: Do you know what that’s going to be?
RR: My standard answer is drive my wife crazy. [Laughs] But I’m not sure exactly yet. I’ve got a few more years to do something else but I’m not quite sure what it is.
SDJJ: Have you experienced any changes in the synagogue in your tenure here?
RR: Yes, tremendous changes. Demographic changes have had a tremendous impact since I first came. This used to be the center of the Jewish community – San Carlos, College Area, Del Cerro – the JCC used to be on 54th Street.
The congregation is smaller now than it was when I first came in. The demographics have changed as far as who joins and doesn’t join the synagogue. The nature of the synagogue has changed too – we used to be much larger corporate personality and now we’re much more family oriented. It’s a tighter group now.
SDJJ: Do you have any favorite fond memories of your time here?
RR: First thing that leapt to mind was family camp. We haven’t done it in a long time, but family camps were fun.
Some of the holiday celebrations have been a lot of fun – Purim. Many years ago we did a ceremony for Russian immigrants to the country who had never had Jewish weddings.
A lot of good times and happy memories.
SDJJ: Will you continue to worship here afterward?
RR: Yes, I plan to. I’ll put some space between myself and the new rabbi so he or she can find his or her own place without my interference, but I plan to.
SDJJ: What does that transition look like?
RR: It really depends on the incoming rabbi. I was Rabbi Gold’s associate for a couple of years so he was very helpful with that transition as far as me being his successor. I’ll be as helpful or not as they want me to be. It’s really up to them.
As I tell people, during the High Holidays my plan is to sit in the back, complain about the service, the temperature of the synagogue and the rabbi, just like everybody else. [Laughs].
Tifereth Israel will likely announce its new rabbi by July. Visit tiferethisrael.com for more information.