Rabbi Daniel Isaak
Growing up in San Francisco as a child of German refugees, I learned early to love attending shul with my father and found pleasure in the company of the synagogue “regulars”. Later I actively participated in my Conservative Movement synagogue, became involved in USY and attended Camp Ramah in Ojai, CA, to which I returned for several years as a Madrich/bunk counselor and Rosh Edah/division head. (It was a special treat to recently revisit camp on the occasion of the California Ramah’s 50th anniversary.) I taught Hebrew school during my last year as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, graduating in 1971 with a double major in linguistics and Near Eastern languages.
I was accepted into the rabbinical program at the Jewish Theological Seminary where I pursued ordination, completing my studies in 1976. It was while at JTS that I met my wife Carol and we married in 1974. In order to remain on the east coast, I became the rabbi in Hackensack, N.J for three years, and then in Briarcliff Manor, N. Y., for the next 14 years.
Twice during my academic years I availed myself of the opportunity to study in Jerusalem at the Hebrew University, while an undergraduate from 1969-1970, and then again during rabbinical school from 1974-5.
Coming to Neveh Shalom signaled a long awaited return to the west coast. I recall my father saying that someday we would take a family vacation to Oregon. “I hear it’s really beautiful up there.” Unfortunately he never made it, but I can confirm not only the natural beauty, but the warmth and openness of the people as well.
I came to a large congregation to succeed a much revered rabbi, who had served the congregation for 40 years, a daunting undertaking. Rabbi Stampfer and I have developed a mutually supportive relationship, and I appreciate being able to consult with him and talk over issues rabbi-to-rabbi, as well as officiating together at funerals of our long standing members.
Probably the greatest challenge in leading a large religious community such as ours is to determine how best to meet each congregant where s/he is. That means nurturing those with minimal Jewish background while simultaneously providing the proper religious atmosphere for those interested in serious learning and davening (and every stage of Jewish knowledge and observance in between). In addition it means providing as many opportunities as possible for people to get to meet and know one another, to feel connected to each other and to the synagogue as a whole. I am committed to both “outreach” and “inreach”. As such we are anxious to welcome Jews of all ages, life situations and income abilities. We created Keruv and Gay outreach committees, whose purpose is to assist our interfaith and gay couples in feeling at home at Neveh Shalom. Simultaneously I am committed to enriching the Jewish experiences of those already members of our congregation.
During my tenure, Neveh Shalom has continued to flourish and to grow. I have taken particular pleasure in the explosion of synagogue membership at the youngest end of the age spectrum. Tot Shabbat was created to provide a place where young children might be introduced to Jewish prayer with their parents. When the group became too large, we separated the K-2nd graders from the children 5 and under into a second group, forming a second group called Shabbat Kids. The entire program functions under the rubric of Shoroshim/Roots, which also coordinates Shabbat dinners, holiday events and local excursions. In addition we created a New Baby’s group for first time parents and a separate young couples group, which has more recently been absorbed into Hinenu, a singles and couples group for 20s and 30s, post-college, pre-kids.
Worship is another area where we are expanding and creating new options for increased lay leadership and participation. We are proud of our corps of adult and teenage Torah readers and daveners who fill a very important role in our synagogue throughout the year. In addition to our main service, our congregant-led Downstairs Minyan meets here twice a month (with a third monthly Shabbat gathering at the Robison Home), an informal setting where adults and teens can become comfortable learning and leading sections of the service. We have altered our Friday evening service schedule, such that each week of the month we provide a different Kabbalat Shabbat option at 6:15pm. Communal Shabbat dinners take place frequently, such that it is not unusual to be serving dinner to more than one group on a Friday evening.
A rabbi is first and foremost a teacher. Every Friday I send out an email to the congregation discussing some issue of religious practice or current concern with notes on the Parshat Hashavua/the weekly Torah reading. Each Shabbat morning as services in the main sanctuary get underway, we conduct a concurrent 45-minute Torah study in the Feldstein library. We offer classes and retreats on a host of subjects, textual and contemporary. Each year I teach a values clarification class for pre-Bar/Bat Mitzvah students together with their parents. Recently the United Synagogue recognized Neveh Shalom with an award for our publication, “I Am Jewish”. Over 40 congregants responded to my invitation to submit personal statements defining their own Jewish identity. These we distributed on Yom Kippur and they became the topic of my Kol Nidre sermon. This project was a follow up to a class in which I read essays with a group of adults by well known Jews edited in memory of Daniel Pearl, the Jewish journalist assassinated by terrorists in Pakistan.
I lead exciting trips to Israel, so that we can better identify with the land, its people and its struggle for peace. This year our Neveh Shalom journey will coincide with Israel’s 60th anniversary.
When Multnomah County began issuing marriage licenses to gay couples, I taught a class on Judaism and homosexuality. Later when the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly passed conflicting resolutions on the issue of homosexuality, I taught a class so that all might better understand the complex Halakhic issues involved. After considerable study and thought, I spoke to our ritual committee, Board of Directors and the congregation-at-large that I found the Responsa by Rabbis Dorff, Nevins and Reisner compelling. I announced that I will henceforth recognize and officiate at same sex unions. The reaction from the congregation has been gratifyingly positive.
I also enjoy both my participation in the larger Jewish community and the greater Portland community. Active in our Oregon Board of Rabbis, I completed my second term as president. Together we coordinate an Introduction to Judaism course in which both Jews and non-Jews attend, some participants taking the course as a prerequisite to conversion. I have orchestrated the OBR community-wide annual Education Shuk and inter-congregational Selichot service. We also created and take responsibility for the Teen-Israel scholarship to send qualified high school students for a summer experience in Israel.
Outside of Neveh Shalom I teach monthly lunch-and-learn sessions at Intel and in downtown Portland. Also I welcome invitations to speak at various church groups, local high school classes, universities and Christian colleges on topics of Jewish identity, thought and values.
Each year I lead the AJC Community Seder, which brings together some 150 clergy, politicians, community leaders and various religious organizations to share in the most colorful ritual and reenactment of our Jewish master story through song, stories and readings. Following 9/11 I was instrumental in organizing a Muslim/Jewish/Arab dialogue group, whose purpose was for the participants to learn about each other, come to trust each other, so that we might discuss with respect the most difficult issue which divides us, the Israel/Palestine conflict. I work closely with Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, the largest Christian ecumenical group in the country on issues of mutual interest and concern: hunger, homelessness, poverty, aging, mental health, social justice.
My wife Carol is my confidante, my support and my companion. Trained as a graphic designer, she has found her voice as a docent/tour guide at the Portland Art Museum. Together we are quite proud of our four children: Gabriel, Ari, Marissa and Misha, their partners and our two grandchildren.