A Chat With Rabbi Michael Resnick

One of my favorite Los Angeles rabbis is Michael Resnick of the Westside Conservative synagogue Adat Shalom.

In the 12/5/97 edition of the Jewish Journal, Robert Eshman wrote: A native of Sepulveda, he attended Har Zion Synagogue (it has since merged with Temple Ramat Zion) but stopped his Jewish education atage 13. After graduating from Cal State Northridge, he embarked on a career in advertising. But a visit to Israel during the Gulf War inspired him to change course. He attended the Pardes Institute there, then returned to the States to study and receive his ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary. He took the pulpit of Adat Shalom in August, replacing the recently retired Rabbi Morton Wallach, who served there for 24 years.

Demographic shifts had been tough on the 50-year-old Conservative shul, whose modern structure sits on a prime block of Westside real estate across from Trader Joe's market on National Boulevard. Adat Shalom has been losing members for the past six years. About 250 families and individuals belong to the congregation now, down from a peak of 450. The decline also plunged the shul into a series of financial crises.

I spoke by phone with Rabbi Resnick 2/12/03 about Stephen Fried's book, The New Rabbi.

Rabbi Resnick: "I started reading it but I ran out of patience with it. I'm hesitent to tell you what I really think."

The rabbi pauses for about five seconds. "I think being a rabbi is a really tough job. Replacing a beloved rabbi is really really difficult. Rabbi [Gerald] Wolpe is clearly beloved by his congregation. At the same time, I think congregations begin to overestimate their own importance and their sense of who's good enough to serve in their congregation. I think there's a reason [Har Zion in Philadelphia] is still looking for a rabbi. Get over it. Hire someone to lead the congregation and move on."

Luke: "What about the book and its painful details about various rabbis?"

Rabbi Resnick: "I never got to painful details about anybody. I'm still at the part where Rabbi Wolpe was giving one of his farewell sermons during the High Holidays. At that point, I just got sick of it and put it down.

"The last thing I want to do as a rabbi is hear about the nonsense that goes on in congregations. If I'm going to have some free time to read, I'm going to read Tolstoy or Chekhov and not read about the business that I'm in that I find sometimes to be unhealthy."

Luke: "Was the book painful?"

Rabbi Resnick: "No. It was annoying. The congregation and the search committee and the different personalities and what they're looking for and ahh... The more I read it, the more I felt, who needs this? So I put it down. It strikes too close to home sometimes. In my free time, I'd rather not remind myself of the politics of a shul and enrich myself in other ways."

Luke: "What sentiments are you picking up from your rabbinic colleagues about the book?"

Rabbi Resnick: "I've not spoken to any rabbis about it. My congregants are suggesting that I read it. I'm having people say to me, 'Have you read this book, The New Rabb?' I was not aware that there were insulting details about other rabbis."

Luke: "Not insulting, just painful to some of the rabbis concerned, and their friends. The details were accurate."

Rabbi Resnick: "A colleague of mine is mentioned, a guy I went to rabbinical school with and graduated with, Jacob Herber. I was upset to hear Rabbi Schoenberg say, 'Jacob is not just up to it. He's not quite ready for a synagogue this size.' Jacob was a wonderful sensitive caring intelligent rabbi and I'm sure he's only grown since. It annoyed me to hear Elliott making judgments about what his capabilities are. Sometimes people rise to the occasion."

Luke: "Do you believe that rabbis are public figures and deserve to be held to the same sort of scrutiny we give leaders in other fields such as business and sports?"

Rabbi Resnick: "No. He's a figure within his own community. He or she gets enough scrutiny from the congregants. And the scrutiny is inevitably skewed. Nobody knows how your manner is at the bedside of somebody who is dying. No one knows your sensitivity and kindness. And to hold you up to public scrutiny for the quality of a sermon or your personal life or your intellectual skills is just wrong. There is so much of a rabbi beyond the eyes of the public and to only focus on public issues is misleading for what a rabbi does."

Luke: "I remember the panel you were on about sex and dating."

Rabbi Resnick: "We were up there representing tradition and people didn't like it. God forbid I say you shouldn't marry a non-Jew. Forgive me, go marry one, just don't expect me to agree with it. It's an interesting business but to read about the trials and tribulations and the process that goes on in a synagogue... Synagogues can be dysfunctional families. Sometimes they can be functional families."