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Orange County Temple Keeps It All in the Family

Times Staff Writer

One of the biggest challenges for Rabbi Rebecca Schorr these days is leaving her work at the office.

“When my husband and I are hanging out with my parents, we have to make sure that dinner doesn’t become shop talk,” said Schorr, 35, whose better half works in retail development.

What makes it challenging is that Rabbi Stephen J. Einstein, with whom Schorr shares the pulpit at Fountain Valley’s Congregation B’nai Tzedek, is also her father. In fact, both say, they may be the first father-daughter rabbinical team to serve the same temple.

“We’ve never heard of it happening before,” said Einstein, 60.

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Kevin Proffitt, senior archivist for research and collections at the American Jewish Archives, hasn’t heard of it happening either, though he can’t say for certain that it’s never occurred.

“It probably hasn’t because women in the pulpit are still a relatively new phenomenon -- only in the last 35 years,” said Proffitt, whose archives are housed at Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College.

Schorr’s path to her father’s side was circuitous at best.

After growing up attending services at the temple he helped found in 1976 when she was 5, Schorr settled on a career in musical theater.

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“While I was growing up, people would always ask me if I wanted to be a rabbi like my father and the answer always was no,” recalled the rabbi’s daughter, who had her bat mitzvah at B’nai Tzedek at 13 and married there at 24.

What animated her, though, were the voice and piano lessons she’d taken since childhood. In high school she sang in five choirs. And later she spent four years pursuing a bachelor’s degree in music at Ithaca College in New York. By the time Schorr graduated, however, her deep religious convictions had begun shaping her views.

“I realized that it would be very difficult to have a career on Broadway and lead an observant Jewish life,” she said. “It would be hard, for instance, to observe Shabbat if you were on stage that night. As much as I loved performing, I couldn’t shake that aspect of my soul that was so intrinsically Jewish.”

Though Schorr now realized she wanted a faith-related career, it took her a while to follow in her father’s footsteps. She spent a year working in the Jewish community as, among other things, a Judaic specialist at a Jewish school and a teacher at synagogues. “Deep down,” she says she now realizes, “I wanted to be a rabbi, but I was afraid and not certain I could do it.”

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That certainty came only after a long conversation with the elderly rabbi who’d been her father’s teacher and has since died at age 85. “He was like Yoda,” Schorr said, “a wise old sage.”

After he talked with her for two hours, he asked why she wasn’t joining the clergy.

“I told him that I could never be a rabbi like my dad,” Schorr recalled. “He said, ‘In the words of Popeye the Sailor, “I am what I am and that’s all I am.” You can never fill your father’s shoes because you have a different shoe size.’ ”

That truth, both father and daughter now observe, has become evident in the intervening years.

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After completing rabbinical school and being ordained in 1999, Schorr, who has two young children, worked as an associate rabbi at Temple Israel in Long Beach and, later, as an educator at Irvine’s Jewish Community Center and director of worship at the center’s day camp. She also occasionally filled in for her father, including once during a six-month sabbatical.

“That’s how it started,” Einstein says of the process by which his daughter became his associate. “I came back and people said, ‘We love you, but is there some way we can have her come here?’ ”

The way recently presented itself when the temple’s longtime cantor, responsible for providing music during worship services, decided not to renew her contract.

“All of a sudden we had a full-time position,” explained the rabbi, who didn’t participate directly in Schorr’s selection. “It became very clear that we had someone right here who had all the skills.”

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Those skills were on full display during the pair’s first Shabbat service together on a recent Friday night. With Schorr at one end of the sanctuary stage and Einstein at the other, the two alternated seamlessly between music and spoken prayer.

“This Shabbat is a truly historic one in the life of our congregation,” the senior rabbi said in his sermon. His next comment evoked some chuckles in the crowd: “I am very excited that Rabbi Schorr has joined our staff because she is simply our kind of rabbi.” That seemed to be the general perception.

“People are happy to see her back,” Judy Lerner, the congregation’s president, said of the young rabbi’s return. “She already knows everybody and they know her. We hope she attracts young families to the synagogue and assures our future.”

Twenty-year member Darrell Neft, 57, said he couldn’t agree more. “She’s very good at what she does,” he said. “It seems like a natural fit.”

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Both rabbis have some concerns regarding their new professional relationship; Einstein’s pertaining to the challenge of supervising his own daughter, and Schorr’s about being compared to her father.

“People need to be able to give honest feedback even though she’s my daughter,” the senior rabbi said.

Added Schorr: “Being able to give back to the congregation that raised me is very humbling. Not only am I working with a great rabbi, but I’m related to him. I’m a bit nervous.”

Longtime temple member Arnold Adler, 69, who remembers her as a child, said he wasn’t worried. “She was quite lively and showed leadership even then,” he said. “She’s one of us. She grew up here and we welcome her back.”

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