In Conversation: Rabbi Steven Chester

One benefit of writing this blog is that it gives me an excuse to sit down and talk with our rabbis at much greater length than I normally would. This is the third in an occasional series of interviews with the rabbis of Temple Sinai, my Reform congregation in Oakland, Calif.

Rabbi Steven Chester

Rabbi Steven Chester, our senior rabbi at Temple Sinai, is retiring after 22 years at Sinai and 40 years in the rabbinate. Seventeen years ago, he conducted our daughter’s baby naming ceremony. Earlier this spring he officiated at my adult Bat Mitzvah. We’ve known he was retiring for a long time — this is actually his second attempt at retirement, since his first got derailed by the recession — and I felt lucky to have the chance to study with him for my Bat Mitzvah.

Rabbi Chester was in fact the reason Sam and I joined Temple Sinai. We had just moved back to Oakland from Sacramento and were “congregation shopping.” We walked into his office, saw the United Farm Workers poster on the wall and felt his personal warmth, and we were hooked.

Rabbi Chester combines that personal warmth with a commitment to social justice, powerful public speaking skills, a “big tent” approach to Israel that welcomes both AIPAC hawks and J Street doves, an intellect that moves easily from ancient Jewish history to contemporary novels, and a humanistic theology in the tradition of Abraham Joshua Heschel.

And let’s not forget a sense of humor that, every Purim, gave us our rabbi in drag as Esther Chester.


Q: You’ve spent 40 years in the rabbinate. Do you view Judaism differently now than when you entered? 

A: I don’t view Judaism differently, but the ways that people manifest their Judaism have changed. People are much more inward today.  If you want to hang a word on it, they’re more spiritual, whatever that word means.

Reform Judaism of the ’60s, when I was in rabbinical school, was completely social-action oriented. Rabbis spoke about social issues and how Judaism connected to those issues, but they did not speak about prayer or God. The movement’s emphasis was 80 percent on the social action side of Judaism and 20 percent on the inward side – on self-fulfillment, prayer, and God. That’s been the major change.

In Jewish life and especially in liberal Jewish life, we’ve always balanced on two tightropes. One tightrope is the tension between particularism and universalism, or between Jewish issues and universal issues. The other is between individuality and community. It’s not that the values have changed, but the weight put on one or the other has changed.

Q: Is that change for the better or the worse? 

A: Ten years ago, I definitely thought it was for the worse. One would go to conventions and there was a preponderance of workshops on turning inward and self-searching rather than the outward and community action. Now social action is coming back and there’s more of a balance. That’s positive. There has to be both.

Rabbi Chester leads Becca's naming ceremony in January 1994 / Copyright by Ilana DeBare

Q: How about you personally? Has your relationship to Judaism changed over these 40 years? 

A: My relationship to tradition has changed. I’m not speaking theologically; I’m speaking ritually. I’ve become more traditional in the service, where davening or body movement has become more significant, and where there’s much more Hebrew in the service.

I look much more to text than I did in my early rabbinate. Very little text was dealt with in the ’60s and ’70s. Now the emphasis is that when you do something, you base it on text. You’re looking at text and examining text.

In terms of Jewish values, I haven’t changed. My emphasis remains the parallel relationships (with people) and not the vertical relationship (with God).

I’m much more concerned with what Judaism says and with what I do — the Jewish values by which I live my life — than with prayer. My main connection is still to the social, and to social justice.

“I still see people as basically decent”

Q: You’ve spent 40 years dealing with people in moments of intimacy, trauma, and joy. Do you view human beings differently now? 

A: No. I view people as basically good. I try as hard as I can to not be judgmental. There are some people who have difficulties – family problems, psychological problems and so on — that prevent them from reaching their true potential as a person. But I still see people as basically decent.

One thing I’ve learned in my rabbinate is: Don’t react immediately, and don’t overreact. Listen to what someone is saying and then try to figure out why he or she is angry. I’ve learned that if someone comes in very angry about something in the congregation, generally there is something going on in his or her personal life – illness, divorce, conflict in the home.

The congregation may be the one place where this person feels a sense of ownership, and so takes out his or her frustration on the congregation.

Q: What has been the biggest surprise in being a rabbi?

A: What they didn’t teach in rabbinical school that surprised me was the practical aspect – from budgets to how boards work. That was probably the most difficult thing to understand.

The second thing that surprised me, and still angers me, is what I call the “gas station” approach. People bring their kids in for a bar or bat mitzvah, and when the last one is done, they leave the congregation. What angers me isn’t that they don’t have an interest in Jewish life, but chant the phrase, “We don’t use it any more.”

If everyone thought like that, where would the next generation of children go to be educated? It’s a very selfish way of looking at things. If the majority of people did that, we would have no synagogues.

Another thing that surprised me — and that I now understand — is that you can’t play the numbers game. If x number of people come to services or take a class, then your job is to make it a meaningful experience for them. You can’t say something is not a success if it only has 10 people and not 40.

I’ve served three different sizes of congregations, and you’re essentially going to have the same percentage of people actively participating. I no longer judge in the way I did when I was young. My first high holiday sermons were, “You all should be coming to services more!” Well, that doesn’t do any good. As a matter of fact, all it does is take away from the importance of the other points you want to make in the sermon.

You want to be creative and try to bring people in. But you can’t lament that not everyone is going to be doing everything. That approach will destroy you. You’ll be emphasizing the negative as opposed to the positive.

Rabbi Chester and me before my Bat Mitzvah service

God as a part of us, not as a puppeteer

Q: I liked your phrase about being more “horizontally” focused than “vertically” focused. Let’s talk about the vertical. What’s your conception of God? 

A: Someone once said about Abraham Joshua Heschel: “The ineffable name of God was mensch (man). That belief is the touchstone of so much of what Heschel wrote and did.”

I don’t believe that God is in control of my life like a puppeteer. I go back to some of the Chasidic rebbes who said that when we are born, a piece of God is placed in each and every one of us. And when we bring out our potential, then God is present. God is acting through us. When there is evil in the world, it’s not that God isn’t there – it’s that God has not been activated. That part of the human being, godliness, has not been activated.

Do I believe God can heal people, as it states in the mishaberach? No. But I do believe that when I reach the end of my rope, when I feel helpless and hopeless, there is something inside that gives me extra strength. That, to me, is God.

But there are also times when I hear the cantor sing and all of a sudden, my mind goes back to the traditional belief that God can heal or answer prayers. Because there are emotional moments when things happen in our lives, and we sometimes need something more concrete to rely on.

One doesn’t have to believe in one way. One can be eclectic. We are human beings, and we are not consistent. Those of us who are parents are not consistent in parenting; most of us don’t have only one kind of art in our house; we eat different types of foods. Why do we always have to be consistent about our belief in God?

In the old temple building, three or four times a week I would go sit in the Harpham Chapel and look at the colors of the stained glass windows. I knew the times of day when the colors would bounce off the white of the walls, with the colors mixing. Did I say a formal prayer? No. I would just look at that, the awe and the wonder of it, and God would be touching my life.

It comes back to Heschel, and that every facet of life is a miracle or godly. Heschel said that when we say blessings for everything, it isn’t because God needs the blessings. It’s that we need the blessings to realize the miracle of everything God has given us.

Rabbi Chester and adult b'not mitzvah (from left) Ilana DeBare, Karen Tanner, Jane Simon and Sydney Firestone, May 2011

A personal story behind decades of grief counseling

Q: You’ve spent a lot of time over the years working with people in moments of grief and mourning. What drew you to this? 

A: It’s not that I really l dwell on doing grief counseling. It’s something I became qualified to do. But the reason why may be a little bit deeper.

I had a girlfriend my first semester in college — a brilliant young woman, a year ahead of me at UCLA, second violinist in the L.A. Philharmonic, a talented, bright, sweet young lady. She was probably my first love. I was home in Pomona for winter vacation and I received a call from her mother, saying she had fallen off a horse and was in the hospital and probably wouldn’t be able to go out New Year’s Eve.

Then, before I had a chance to go in and visit her, I received a call that she had died.

I went to the funeral – it was the first funeral I had been to, ever. I was a pallbearer. Her mother was a Holocaust survivor and as we walked to the grave, I vividly remember her mother yelling, “Why did I ever survive the Holocaust? Why did I ever survive?”

We did the burial, and I didn’t go back to the house afterwards. And because I didn’t know what to do or how to act, I never visited her parents or contacted them again. I always felt tremendous guilt about that.

I think that may be one of the reasons, subliminally, that I started taking classes in grief and death counseling and became pretty well qualified to do this. In Stockton, I was one of the co-founders of a hospice and became the grief counselor for the hospice.

I know somewhere down deep it had to do with my own failure as a human being and as a young man – I was 18 years old – and not knowing how to handle that particular situation.

That’s also why in Stockton, and sometimes here in Oakland, I used to do a death and dying class for 10th graders. I wanted them to know how to act when they went into a house of mourning – not to be afraid, and to know what to expect if someone died in their family.

Creative chaos and the outlook for Judaism

Q: When you think about what Judaism will be like in 10 or 20 years, are you optimistic or pessimistic? 

A: I’m optimistic.  I don’t think Judaism is going to die out in the United States. More people are interested in it. How it’s going to look is another question.

The only other time in Jewish history that’s comparable to the Jewish American world today was 2000 years ago – only today you don’t have the oppression that existed in Roman times.

Back then you had the Sadducees and the Pharisees, the Essenes and the Zealots, and the secularists who wanted to become like the Greeks and Romans.

Today you have Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, secular, Modern Orthodox, Ultra Orthodox, Chasidic Ultra Orthodox, non-Chasidic Ultra-Orthodox, Renewal – all these things.

I call it creative chaos. It’s all very positive. The question is, where is it all going to go? Not just Reform Judaism – but what will all of non-Ultra-Orthodox Judaism look like 20 years from now? I have no idea.

Jewish values aren’t going to change. But how are they going to be manifest? And with all these developments in technology, how are we going to retain a sense of community? Do we want to become Facebook congregations?

One of the beauties of Judaism has been that we have been able to adapt. Mishnah was an adaptation, Talmud was an adaptation, Chasidism was an adaptation, Reform Judaism was an adaptation.

They were all responses to what was happening in the society, both internally and externally. That’s why we survive.

The heart of being a rabbi 

Q: What is the secret to being a good rabbi? What would you tell a young rabbi entering the rabbinate today? 

A: That’s a difficult question. Because I’ve loved what I’ve done. I’d do it all over again, mostly in the same way.

But the specific answer would be – love Judaism. Love being Jewish, teaching Judaism, love other Jews. Love the Jewish people, even with all our mishegas (craziness). That would basically be it.

You have to love what you’re trying to give to people. Also, you have to have respect for people — faith that they will try to further what you as a rabbi feel is significant in Jewish teachings and life.

Q: Is there anything you would change about your rabbinate? 

A: I am thrilled this congregation grew the way it did, almost doubling in size. However, it’s difficult to have a large congregation when you’re the type of rabbi I want to be. Essentially I’m a pastoral rabbi. I believe in seeing people as soon as possible. I fit in other things between appointments or at night. So I end up working many hours a week.

My first congregation, 100 families, was very intimate and I knew everyone. My second congregation was 325 families and I knew almost everyone.

Then, as I came here, to a larger congregation, both the congregation and I lost some of that intimacy.

I ended up not doing every bar and bat mitzvah, not interacting with the families in the same way as in a smaller congregation. If this congregation had stayed at 500 or 550 families, that probably would have been more fitting to the type of rabbi that I am.

To see the growth here is very thrilling and gratifying. But you become more of a CEO-type, and sometimes why you became a rabbi falls a little bit to the wayside.

About a month ago I had a day all filled with what I would call “real” rabbinic duties. I counseled a person who was going through tremendous difficulty, then had a bat mitzvah rehearsal, then I taught a class at night that was really thrilling.

That night I came home and said, “Today was a day that I really felt that I did what I went into the rabbinate to do.”


This is the third in a series of interviews with rabbis connected to Temple Sinai. You can read the first interview with Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin here and the second interview with Rabbi Andrea Berlin here



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8 Responses to “In Conversation: Rabbi Steven Chester”

  1. Janice Dean Says:

    Thank, Rabbi Chester, for sharing such wisdom. Thank you, Ilana, for facilitating the sharing. I read two things in this interview that really struck me.

    The lay leader part of me read, “The congregation may be the one place where this person feels a sense of ownership, and so takes out his or her frustration on the congregation.” This gave me a total a-ha moment. I am going to keep thinking about this idea of ownership and how, as a leader in my congregation, I might be able to positively respond to someone’s negative emotions with the knowledge that their upset is founded in their sense of ownership at church. What a wonderful insight.

    The part of me who is a practicing Christian had an a-ha moment upon reading this comment: “We are human beings, and we are not consistent. Those of us who are parents are not consistent in parenting; most of us don’t have only one kind of art in our house; we eat different types of foods. Why do we always have to be consistent about our belief in God?” Yes! Thank you again, Rabbi Chester. Sometimes I feel like a flip-flopper in how I view God, but this points out the fundamentally human nature of that inconsistency.

    Great interview!

  2. Susan Says:

    Wonderful interview with Rabbi Chester. Thanks, Ilana. And thanks, Rabbi Chester, for sharing your thoughts, as you have shared so much of yourself, with the congregation.

  3. Annabelle Travis Says:

    Thanks Ilana for all these interviews. You did a wonderful job. It gives us all insight into the feelings, thoughts, and beliefs of our beloved Rabbis…and how wonderful and unique they all are. The three of them and the community of Temple Sinai are a large part of why I chose to convert to Judaism 2 years ago June 2.

    I loved these interviews! Thanks again.
    Annabelle (AKA Chana Meira)

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Thank YOU! And mazel tov on the anniversary of your conversion. Hope to see you at one of the farewell events for Rabbi Chester. (I will be at the Friday night service but out of town for the Saturday dinner.)

  4. Rebecca Thompson Says:

    Thank you, Ilana for this candid conversation with my beloved Uncle Steve. I appreciate his horizontal relationship with God, and respect that he is accepting of the ever-changing shape of Judaism. I look forward to celebrating with all of you next weekend.

    Rebecca Thompson
    (Steve Chester’s niece)

  5. JM Says:

    Thank you for this. Rabbi Chester was the rabbi I worked with during my conversion. He was thoughtful and patient (I had a trillion questions!). I thoroughly enjoyed this interview and hope he enjoys his much-deserved retirement.

  6. Barbara Forrest Says:

    Rabbi Chester, I’m not sure you’ll even remember me. I learned with you at Temple Israel in Stockton, oh so many years ago. And I treasure that learning. I live in Idaho now, far from synagogues, but never far from Judaism. Thank you so much. And I am so glad that your life as a Rabbi was successful. I sincerely hope you enjoy your retirement.
    Barbara Forrest

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