In Conversation: Rabbi Andrew Straus

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 fourth in an occasional series of interviews with the rabbis of Temple Sinai, my Reform congregation in Oakland, Calif. 

Rabbi Andrew Straus may be 50 and a veteran of three congregations, but he’s the new kid on theTemple Sinai block, having taken over as senior rabbi on July 1st after the retirement of Rabbi Steven Chester. Still, less than a month into his rabbinate here, it’s already clear to me that he is a wonderful addition to the Sinai community.

Rabbi Andrew Straus

Rabbi Straus — whose wife Karen and three children accompanied him from his previous pulpit in Tempe, Arizona — brings warmth, humor, energy and intellectual vigor. During his first Shabbat service at Sinai, he turned the d’var Torah into a room-wide back-and-forth on that week’s Torah portion.

He seemed to already know the names of half the attendees, and the other half he learned by asking them to introduce themselves as they made comments. I suspect that two decades from now, people will be saying the same thing about Rabbi Straus that they said about Rabbi Chester: I can’t imagine Temple Sinai without him. 

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Q: Tell me about why you became a rabbi.

A: I was entering my senior year at Brandeis, about to graduate with a history degree. I didn’t want to go to law school, and I didn’t want to pursue a PhD. So I said, ‘Let me find the longest graduate program that will put off the real world longer than anything else.’ And rabbinic school was another five years of graduate study.

That’s the joke answer, although there’s some truth to it. But more seriously,  I was looking at what I wanted to do with my life. I loved working in the Jewish community, so I started looking at getting a master’s in Jewish education or possibly in Jewish social work. At that time they would teach you education, and throw in a little bit of Judaism. Or they would teach you social work, and throw in a little bit of Judaism. The major focus was on the professional degree, not the Jewish studies.

What I wanted was to study Judaism in a more serious way – and then figure out what to do with it afterwards.

What I’ve since come to realize is that the rabbinate allows me to dabble in all of those areas. I get to do the social work stuff and the counseling; I get to be involved in education; I get to be involved in community organizing and community issues. Sometimes I think I’ve become a jack of all trades, though I’m not sure I’ve mastered any of them.

Q: What kind of Jewish upbringing did you have?

A: I grew up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where my parents were very involved in the Jewish community.  They don’t use the term ‘refugees’ to define themselves, since they left Germany right after Kristallnacht and didn’t go through the camps. But that experience certainly shaped them and how they were involved in the Jewish community.

I very clearly remember going down to New York for Israel Day parades or for Free Soviet Jewry day marches. I remember the Yom Kippur War, just before my Bar Mitzvah, sitting with my father at the J.C.C. and making calls about who was going to donate what to support Israel. I remember some of the doctors in the community leaving to go to Israel for the Yom Kippur War.

For my parents, it was very important we have Shabbat dinner together. And more often than not, we went to Friday night services together too.

Q: Was your family Reform or Conservative? 

A: It was a Conservative congregation, a very liberal Conservative congregation. The first Shabbat that Conservative synagogues were allowed to count women in a minyan, our congregation was doing it, and at the first Shabbat where the Conservative movement gave permission for women to read from the Torah, we called women to the Torah.

Choosing Reform Judaism

Q: What drew you to become a Reform rabbi rather than Conservative? 

A: At the time, the Conservative seminary was not accepting women, and that didn’t make any sense to me. And at the time, it was understood that you would be shomer Shabbat — traditionally observant of Shabbat and kashrut and the mitzvot. If you didn’t do those things, it could be grounds for expulsion.

I didn’t want someone forcing me to do those things. I might choose to do them – but I didn’t want someone forcing me.

I realized that, if that’s where I was, it was really more of a Reform Jewish attitude than a Conservative one. So maybe I belonged at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.

Q: Are there parts of Reform Judaism that remain uncomfortable for you?

A: Growing up as a kid, I remember going to my aunt and uncle’s Reform congregation in Springfield, Massachusetts, and walking in and hearing the organ and the big choir and thinking, ‘God, I’ve walked into church!’

I’m not sure I could be in a fully classical Reform congregation – one that was still using the Union Prayer Book with services largely in English, where the cantor is hidden and there’s a pipe organ with a large professional choir. But the (Reform) movement has become much more traditional over the past 30 to 40 years. This embrace of tradition made it much easier for me. And I think I’ve become more liberal.

Rabbi Straus leads an interfaith program at Temple Emanuel in Tempe, Arizona / Photo by Temple Emanuel

Q: What are your favorite aspects of being a rabbi? There are so many different components of this job – the pastoral counseling, the Jewish scholarship, the social action, the interfaith work. 

A: Of the things you mentioned, I certainly enjoy the social action, the Jewish education, the pastoral counseling. If I could eliminate all the administrative pieces, that would be great. But that comes with the territory. I love teaching, I love counseling, and the social justice stuff often gets me jazzed, especially when you can see where it makes an impact on the community.

Broadening the meaning of Kashrut

Q: Do you personally feel more of an affinity for the spiritual/reflective aspect of Judaism or the tikkun olam/community-building aspect of Judaism? 

A: I’m not sure I see the two as separate. I understand Judaism as asking us to be God’s partners in healing this world. My understanding of the mitzvot is they are designed to help me live a conscious life – to help me think about these issues both interally for myself and the Jewish community, and for the external community. If I can use kashrut as an example, I think kashrut is about conscious eating. What am I about to eat? How was this animal slaughtered? Am I eating dairy or am I eating meat?

It takes an instinctive part of who I am – as an animal, I have to eat – and brings it to the head and heart. My pet dog doesn’t use his brain when he eats. I’m a human being, and I have to use my brain and my soul when I sit down to eat.

Q: I feel that kashrut often emphasizes the letter of the law rather than the meaning. I can understand putting attention into buying local, or into how food is produced. But that’s totally different from separating milk and meat and using margarine rather than butter at a meal. 

A: What I find really interesting is this whole new movement called eco-kashrut. The Conservative movement has taken the lead with a new certification called Hechsher Tzedek or Magen Tzedek.  Traditional kashrut only looks at the last ten seconds of an animal’s life – how is it slaughtered? The Conservative movement is saying that’s not enough. We have to look at how that animal is treated through its entire life, how the workers in the slaughterhouse are being treated, how the farmers are being treated. There’s a lot of wisdom to that.

In my own home, we eat very little meat. But when we do, we don’t look at whether it has been properly shechita’ed (slaughtered), because most meat in America today is slaughtered with relatively little pain — which is what kashrut is really about — but we do look for natural or organic or free-range. We expand the definition.

This doesn’t fit my Orthodox brothers’ categories. But it fits my categories, and it fits what you were saying about looking at the broader picture.

A God constrained by the laws of nature

Q: Let’s take a leap into the abstract and talk about God. What is your conception of God? 

A: It’s very much an evolving conception. I often joke — but am also serious — that the day I think I know with absolute certainty who and what God is, that’s the day I’ve stopped growing as a human being and a Jew. That’s certainly the day I should get out of the rabbinate, and probably the day I should die.

I am very much influenced in my thinking about God by writers like Mordechai Kaplan, Harold Schulweis, and Harold Kushner. They teach that God is not a supernatural God who can come down and fiddle in the laws of nature.

Kushner has written that we ultimately have to choose between a God who is all-just and a God who is all-powerful. And given that choice, I choose a God who is all-just. This means that God has created the world in such a way that the world operates by certain laws – the laws of genetics, physics, chemistry, all those laws that scientists are discovering on a regular basis.

It’s not that God chooses not to interfere with those laws, but that God cannot intefere with those laws. So when someone gets cancer, I can’t blame God for that cancer. At the same time, it means God doesn’t pick and choose and say, ‘Mrs. Schwartz, you’re going to be cured from your cancer but Mr. Cohen, you’re going to die from your cancer.’ That’s got to do with all the other scientific laws.

Where is God in all that? God is with the scientists and doctors inspiring them to discover cures or provide the best possible care that they can. God is with the community saying, ‘How do we support Mr. Cohen and Mrs. Schwartz through their healing process, and how can we be God’s partners in doing that?’

Q: If God is with the doctors studying cancer, is God also with the vandals who come and break into Mrs. Schwartz’s house while she is in the hospital? 

A: No. I would argue that the vandals – or the terrorists, or whoever you want to substitute into that sentence – are people who have chosen not to listen to the will of God.

Q: But people who do horrible things often believe they are hearing God. Think of all those popes who carried out crusades and pogroms in the name of God. 

A: That’s not the God that I believe in. The God I believe in couldn’t possibly condone actions like that. And that goes for the jihadists, crusaders, or whomever you want to substitute there, who says ‘I’m acting in the will of God.’ No God that I believe in could condone that.

Q: But they’re as confident as you are in their view of God. Why should I put greater credence in one, rather than conclude it’s all subjective and everyone is making things up to justify what they want to believe? 

A: There is admittedly an element of subjectivity. That’s why I can do the interfaith work I do. Because I believe that ultimately there is not just one path to God. I don’t believe there is ultimately just one ‘true religion.’

Judaism is the best way for me to understand my role in the world and my relationship with God. Committed Christians find that Christianity is their way, and committed Muslims would say the same thing. But to me, any religion that teaches hate and violence in the name of God goes beyond the realm.

Baseball as a metaphor for spirituality

Q: In your own life, do you feel that you have ever communicated with God or experienced the presence of God?

A: I’m not sure I would use the word ‘presence.’ I might use the word ‘ force.’ But yes. There are moments when we sense that force. As Danny Syme once taught me, when we think about love, we can’t see it, touch it, smell it, or feel it with any of our five senses. But we all know when we’ve been in the presence of love and when we’ve felt loved.

It’s the same thing with God. We can’t experience God with any of our five senses. But we know when we’ve been in the presence of God. Although often we don’t know it till after the fact.

Q: Have those moments for you been in prayer, or in nature, or in driving the carpool? 

A: Rarely in driving the carpool! But there are times when a kid will make a comment, or I’ll see a beautiful sunset while driving. There are moments while teaching. There have also been moments when I’ve been with families in a hospital room, saying a prayer, and something happens.

Each time it’s different. But there’s a sense: God was present in this moment.

I often use an analogy of baseball. The greatest baseball players right now are batting 350, which means they only get a hit 35 percent of the time at bat. They go right back to the dugout 65 percent of the time. But they know – to get that hit, they’ve got to work on their batting 350 days a year. And they’ve got to be willing to fail time after time after time.

The same thing is true for us in our experience of God. Too many of us walk into the sanctuary and think that every time we’re going to get a home run.  If you think hitting a baseball at 90 miles per hour is hard, true experiences of God are harder yet. So as a community we have to learn to say: When I open myself up to those possibilities, more often than not, nothing will happen. I’ll go right back to the dugout. There will be those times I get a single. Very rarely will I get a home run.

As my father would say: If I go to services, the odds of having a deeply spiritual experience are pretty slim. But if that doesn’t happen,  hopefully there’s been some beautiful music. And if there wasn’t beautiful music, maybe the rabbi said something that was intellectually stimulating. Or maybe I saw a friend and it was a great social experience. And if worse comes to worst, maybe there was something good to eat at the oneg.  There’s lot of different reasons to come to services.

“It’s not just about Shabbat or Passover”

Q: You did a lot of interfaith work in Arizona. What is one thing you wish more non-Jews understood about Judaism? 

A: That Judaism is not monolithic. And that Judaism today is not Biblical Judaism. That what they read about in the Hebrew Bible — what they call the Old Testament — is not how any Jews worship or practice today.

Q: What do you wish more Jews knew about Judaism? 

A: I wish they would get the sense that Judaism is a way of life, with something to teach us about almost every aspect of our lives. While we might not always agree with it, we have an obligation to study and learn from it. Judaism can help us make our daily lives richer and more meaningful. That’s part of what I think Orthodoxy gets. It’s not just about Shabbat or Passover, but about how to see the world through Jewish eyes.

The other piece I wish more Jews would pick up on is Shabbat. When I work with people for conversion, I hear time and time again ‘Ahh! My life is so much richer now that I’ve embraced Shabbat.’

I don’t necessarily mean an Orthodox understanding of Shabbat, but an understanding that  ‘I can take a seventh day. I can take Shabbat and make it holy, in whatever way that word means for me – make it special. I don’t have to do chores and I don’t have to go to work.  I can make this a special day for me and my family.’

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This is the fourth in a series of interviews with rabbis connected to Temple Sinai. Click on these links to read previous interviews with  Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-MuchinRabbi Andrea Berlin, and Rabbi Steven Chester

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8 Responses to “In Conversation: Rabbi Andrew Straus”

  1. Jonathan Carey Says:

    Nice piece, Ilana!

  2. Nicholas Says:

    Sounds like a wonderful guy.

    Thanks for the introduction.

  3. Molly Freeman Says:

    Thoughtful, good read, Ilana.

  4. Susan Modlin Says:

    Hi Ilana,

    I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Rabbi Straus yet, but this is a great introduction. Thanks.

  5. Babette Says:

    I grew to know Rabbi Straus when he was Junior Rabbi at Temple Sholom, in Burlingame, Ca. He not only is a great Rabbi, but he is also a wonderful human being. I am happy that he and his lovely wife Karen, and their children have returned to the Bay Area! This interview is very informative! Job well done!

  6. Babette Says:

    I must clarify the proper name of Peninsula Temple Sholom, Burlingame, Ca., not Temple Sholom.

  7. Babette Says:

    You are welcome, Ilana! Your congregation is very fortunate to have Rabbi Straus as Senior Rabbi. I was very sad when he left our Temple. At least now that he is back in the Bay Area, I can go see him and hopefully Karen and their children!

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