Rabbi Sammy Seid Brings a Teacher’s Insight to Ner Tamidby Alex Wehrung November 5, 2019
One day, while hosting a Torah time study session in his office at Ner Tamid Synagogue in Poway, Rabbi Sammy Seid listened as an elderly congregant shared personal information about health issues that have cropped up in her life. She asked whether or not her problems were indicative that G-d hated and was punishing her for something.
While he personally does not believe in the idea that G-d punishes people by sending medical malaises down upon them, Rabbi Sammy sat back and listened as the community worked out the theological problem together. He explained that he did not feel it would be right for him to ‘force-feed’ his theology in that moment. “I tend to see my role as a facilitator in these, and I end up…I lead them, but I really try to facilitate a conversation, and I was just another participant.”
“I want to make available the theology, and the community really kind of came together in that moment to support this person, like really listen to what her concern was. It was clear that she did not want to believe that, and I don’t think she thought that, but was questioning it.”
Rabbi Sammy wasn’t always set on his current path. He began his duties at Ner Tamid Synagogue in July, an ironic turn of events considering his childhood thoughts on rabbi-hood. “I thought I wanted to be a rabbi until I was eleven years old, and then decided that meant not attending my own kid’s Little League games on Saturday mornings, and therefore backed off of that idea, even though through high school I remained active in my youth group. Becoming a rabbi was off the purview for another 10, 15 years at that point.”
However, he eventually received his ordination and a master’s degree in rabbinic studies at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, a part of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. Afterwards, he spent of South Orange County, eventually making his way to Ner Tamid Synagogue in Poway.
Ner Tamid itself is a member of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the world’s largest Conservative Jewish body. Rabbi Sammy defines Conservative Judaism as having one foot in the modern world, another planted in Jewish traditions, and trying to create a “crucial” bridge between the two.
As perhaps to be expected, Rabbi Sammy feels that there is a noticeable difference between Jewish life in San Diego and Los Angeles. “[It] feels more reminiscent of what I grew up with in Orange County,” he said, noting the geography is more spread-out and sprawling. This, he said, is why San Diegan Jews have a more geographically broad network of connections.
When Rabbi Sammy came to Ner Tamid, he brought a whole host of ideas to pitch to the synagogue’s leadership. “I remember offering some new ideas when I first arrived, and I was in a meeting with Marisa Connell, the president of the schul, and the office administrator and a couple other people, and they kept saying, ‘Oh yeah sure, we could give that a shot!’ And I said, ‘Is there anything you can say no to?’ And she said, ‘Well, you know, we have some lines of course, but we’ll give things a try and if it doesn’t work, we’ll revisit it maybe another time, and see if it does.’
“And I think that willingness to be flexible, that willingness to try something new … it feels like there’s such an immediate trust that the community has with me–and I have with the community–to try this together, to take a little risk here and there with something that is slightly new … I think it’s wonderful,” Rabbi Sammy said.
The rabbi is something of a spiritual teacher, leaning towards the literal sense of the phrase. He earned a teaching credential at Cal State Fullerton, and served as a student-teacher of history at Sonora High School in La Habra. While he was doing his training, “I had actually been sort of enticed back into involvement in leadership in the Jewish community as a religious school teacher and a youth advisor and eventually youth director.”
However, he decided that working in the public school system wasn’t quite for him, as he couldn’t impart the Hebrew lessons he wanted to. Working with religious school families and teens, he said, was a much more “fulfilling and enriching” experience.
“Granted, Hebrew school has its own challenges that need to be worked out, but I certainly felt that it was more rewarding, and I felt that the opportunities I had to engage the students and the teens and their whole identity was much more realized in that kind of setting than what I got to do in public school teaching.
“I love the students I got to work with, but I just found that the way that the [public school] standards were structured was not really conducive to really developing someone wholly. And I found that getting to work with kids exploring their Jewish identity and their relation to the community and everything else about it, it was very enriching.
“I could see the students getting a lot out of it, and I felt pulled more and more back toward involvement within the Jewish community to the point where it dawned on me that if I could have that kind of impact and involvement with the kids, I can only imagine what might be able to happen as a rabbi, so I had made that choice to pursue it.”
Elaborating on what it means to ‘wholly’ develop someone, Rabbi Sammy said, “what I was seeing was in a public school classroom, I had to hit certain, very clear bullet-pointed standards which sort of crammed information into students without allowing them to pursue how that knowledge, that information, that experience impacted the way they live in the world.
“And so within the context of the classroom within a Jewish space, I was fortunate. The religious school director where I was working said if a student expresses interest in a particular subject, ‘feel free to explore it more and go off the path of the expected lesson plan.’
“And as I see it when, in that way, when students got to explore things in Judaism that really mattered to them more personally– whether it was a story in the Torah or a certain ritual practice or a piece of history or whatever it was–I felt that they can more connect into the tradition themselves, and they get to impact the way they then live their lives, and that feels more whole and more complete to me.”
“I think the public school system is doing what they can, and I think that there are a lot of great educators out there, but that to me felt more whole and complete, in allowing people to discover their own identity that way.”
Nowadays, his classroom enthusiasm has carried over to his duties as Ner Tamid’s rabbi, hence the holding of study sessions in his office. “I see Torah study as really most effective when we are trying to take into our role today. One of the things I’m very fond of saying with the folks that participate in Torah study is that it’s always about process, not always about finding answers.”
“So we’ve had all kinds of different elements, from how to respond to debate, whether we do things out of altruism or obligation, as seen through text.”
Rabbi Sammy also plans on starting more educational programs at Ner Tamid. In particular, he hopes to bring the Miller Intro to Judaism program from the American Jewish University in Los Angeles to Ner Tamid, and teach it himself.
The 18-week program is suitable for people who plan on converting to Judaism, Jews who want to learn more about their religion, and people who are just curious about Judaism. The program will cost $180 for Ner Tamid members and $360 for non-members, but those non-members who plan to convert can have half their fee applied to their membership dues.
“We’re introducing some new adult-ed programs and we’re introducing stuff for the little ones,” he said. “I know Becky Bar Lev’s having–she’s the religious school director–started just this last year a ‘Taste of Torah’ for the younger-than-Hebrew-school- aged children. Doubling on that, we’re doing a Tot Shabbat now regularly, and so we’re looking to essentially expand the offerings for various demographics.”
He is grateful that the synagogue’s leadership–both lay and professional–are so cooperative and flexible with helping him institute new programs and ideas at the synagogue. “For me, it’s just been such a joy to get to work alongside with this community to really develop what this community wants out of their Jewish experience.”
Rabbi Sammy says he feels like he and his family have found a home with the synagogue. “I mean, this is one of the most warm and welcoming, engaging and inclusive communities that I’ve ever gotten to be a part of.”
He will be formally installed as Ner Tamid’s rabbi on Nov. 23 from 9:30 a.m. to noon, in a special Shabbat service.