Three Decades of Serviceby Brie Stimson April 2, 2019
After 28 years as senior rabbi of Temple Solel in Cardiff by the Sea, Rabbi David M. Frank is passing the baton. I recently spoke with Rabbi Frank and Dawn Grossman, president of Temple Solel’s board of directors about his imminent departure in the next few months. The following has been edited for space and clarity.
Rabbi Frank: A congregational rabbi does not take on a job, but rather joins a family. I am not sure I recognized this when I first came to Temple Solel in 1991, but I soon came to learn it. It is an immersive experience that pervades a rabbi’s being. Sometimes, this is exhausting, other times exhilarating, and almost all of the time it is sacred.
San Diego Jewish Journal: Tell me what Temple Solel was like when you joined.
RF: When I joined the congregation, Solel had recently established itself under the very able leadership of Rabbi Lenore Bohm. Just four years earlier, it constructed and occupied its very first building. In a short period of time, it had grown to some 400 households as our North County Coastal community began to explode with housing construction and new families. Solel was a community of transplants, coming not only from other parts of San Diego, but also from around the country. And they were all searching for a Jewish home and connection with other Jewish families. When I arrived, Solel was managing this tremendous growth, almost like a startup company might manage its early success. I was selected from among the various candidates to succeed Rabbi Bohm, who retired with distinction, largely because of my programmatic and administrative experience in addition, of course, to the other requisite rabbinic skills that I and all the candidates
I inherited a very special congregation. Friday night services regularly drew 150-200 worshippers. Many if not most of them were regulars who took great ownership of greeting and welcoming those who entered the sanctuary. There was a strong sense of community and connection. The religious school was large and continuing to grow. Members came out regularly to support programs and my Sunday morning classes would draw over 100 adult learners to each session.
SDJJ: What distinguishes Temple Solel from other congregations?
RF: Our early challenges all revolved around growth. Our schools were growing so rapidly that we needed to hold double sessions on Sunday and alternate Hebrew School days during the week. Our High Holiday attendance required us to add a temporary addition to the rear of the social hall and also hold double services. By the late 1990s, it was clear that we would need to either cap our membership and turn families away or move to a new location and build another facility.
I commissioned an expansion task force, which ultimately developed a plan to purchase a new piece of land and eventually construct a new campus. We initiated a capital campaign and built our current campus, which we occupied in 2005. For the first 15 years of my tenure at Solel, I was devoted to serving the needs of a growing young congregation. As with any startup, we were focused on developing infrastructure, staffing, cutting edge programs and education to meet the needs of our expanding community.
One of things that has always distinguished Temple Solel is the willingness to try new things. Since we were the first generation of the congregation, we were never tied to “this is the way it has always been done.” In fact, our hallmark is innovation and experimentation.
SDJJ: What has Rabbi Frank contributed during his time at Temple Solel?
Dawn Grossman: Rabbi Frank is a visionary leader, always open to change. He encourages and supports different means of celebrating Judaism on Shabbat, including Torah Study, traditional Services and Halacha hikes–all to ensure Temple Solel provides diverse programming for our membership. He is credited with growing the Temple from a small size to the largest reform synagogue in north county San Diego, and leading the charge to building our beautiful campus. He educates hundreds with his thought-provoking sermons and provides pastoral care to just as many in times of joy and sorrow. He believes in l’dor vador, focusing on Jewish youth by hiring a full time, senior staff youth director and collaborating on teen programs, including starting our teen journey program where he takes the 10th grade confirmation class to Israel.
RF: When I reflect back on my contributions, I am proud of the many programs we have created over the years–not just new programs like Synaplex or Teen Journey, but also those that make Solel a home for Jews of all backgrounds, from LGBTQ inclusion to a Reform Kosher kitchen. But my greatest satisfaction comes from the private personal moments I have shared with so many people over 28 years. The relationships I have been fortunate to enjoy now span three and four generations of our temple families. I have named children, officiated at their b’nei mitzvah, stood with them beneath their chuppah. Along the way, we have wept in hospital rooms, held each other at funerals and shiva minyans, met in prison cells and at powerful interventions for destructive drug abuse and mourned national emergencies like 9/11 and the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre. My rabbinate has, above all, been deeply personal. What I have gained from all of this is tremendous admiration for the strength and goodness that our temple members exhibit during their most challenging life passages.
On a professional level, I can look back over my career with some degree of pride. In my former congregation, I created a very extensive resettlement program and gave a Jewish home and support to the many refugees from the Former Soviet Union who we welcomed into our congregation, Temple Beth Hillel in North Hollywood. After coming to Solel, I was chair of the San Diego Federation Community Relations Committee, then a member of the Federation board and, ultimately, executive board. I was president of the San Diego Rabbinical Association, treasurer of the San Dieguito Interfaith Ministerial Association and a recent founder of Faith Leaders for Reproductive Justice. I have always believed that part of a rabbi’s job is to bring our Jewish values out into the greater community. And that is something that I plan to continue after my retirement.
SDJJ: How has Temple Solel changed since his time there?
DG: Rabbi Frank shaped and defined Temple Solel during his tenure into a diverse, inclusive and innovative congregation. When Rabbi Frank joined Temple Solel, we were at a time of tremendous possibility and openness, in search of our true identity. Rabbi Frank created our culture by asking us to consider what it means to be Jewish in north San Diego County, as well as in the world. Rabbi Frank’s principled guidance has inspired and united our congregation’s approach on many topics, including providing marriage equality for same sex unions, supporting reproductive rights and strengthening our relationship with the people in Israel. He helped us grow into the largest reform congregation in North County San Diego and, thanks to his vision, Temple Solel built our magnificent campus containing a vibrant early childhood center, an active religious school and several beautiful meeting spaces. He will be missed and we look forward to seeing him on campus as Temple Solel’s first rabbi emeritus.
SDJJ: What will you miss about Rabbi Frank?
DG: I will miss Rabbi Frank’s sensitivity, guidance and leadership. He has represented Temple Solel well in both in the Jewish community and the greater secular community.
RF: I will say that, while not always meeting the approval of my congregants, I was outspoken on social issues. Over the years, I have been outspoken about LGBT inclusion in the early days of that struggle, about the invasion of Iraq, about the Iran nuclear deal, about the Intifada, Gaza and American attitudes toward Israel, about the 2016 election, Charlottesville, and the lack of civilityin our current political climate. I have been critical, political and highly charged. But I always tried to preach from the framework of Jewish values and avoid partisanship. Some were unhappy with my political sermons and thought that politics and social issues should not have a place on the bima, but I was guided by the philosophy that it is the job of the rabbi to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
SDJJ: What’s next for you and Temple Solel?
RF: Over my 28-year tenure, Temple Solel has grown significantly in size and scope. We now have a much larger staff, a bigger budget, more programs and a congregational history. The emerging well-documented trends in American Judaism are also widely felt today in our congregation and new approaches will be needed to successfully meet the needs of the incoming generation. I am most pleased that an excellent successor, Rabbi Alexis Berk, has been selected to lead our synagogue forward. She is well positioned to understand and meet this Jewish future. I can retire with confidence that my beloved Solel family is in good hands. As is appropriate and expected by our Central Conference of American Rabbis, I will not be at Solel for the next year in order to allow Rabbi Berk the space to establish her rabbinate and relationship with the congregation. Meanwhile, I have some waiting academic and business projects that will keep me engaged. I look forward to joining the ranks of my fellow recent retirees, including Rabbis Marty Lawson, Michael Berk and Jonathan Stein. I’m sure the four of us can find some trouble to stir up somewhere.
I would be remiss if I did not express tremendous gratitude to my wife, Davida, and my three children. They sacrificed a great deal for my rabbinate. Not only because of the public role they played everywhere we went, whether to a restaurant or on a trip in another state where we would invariably run into congregants. But mainly because the demands of my career took me away from them. Evenings and weekends were difficult for them because of my commitments. The refrain, “when will Dad be home,” was a common one when my kids were growing up. The rabbinate is not a solitary journey and I could not have navigated it without an understanding and forgiving family.