This summer, two Hebrew Union College students — one on the way to becoming an ordained rabbi, the other an aspiring cantor — returned to the Bay Area synagogues where they began their Jewish journey when they were children.
George Altshuler, 34, began a year-long rabbinical internship at Reform Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco last month, where he will work until he graduates from HUC next May.
Gabriel Lehrman, 28, is at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills beginning this month as a Reform synagogue cantorial intern while cantor Jaime Shpall is on a summer sabbatical.
“I fill some pretty big shoes,” Lehrman said of Shpall, Beth Am’s cantor for seven years. “I feel very supported by the community to recognize that, and I’m doing my best.”
Lehrman co-led his first Shabbat service in the synagogue’s outer courtyard on June 3. “It’s really nice to see what Beth Am is like on the other side of the bimah,” he said.
Both Altshuler and Lehrman have moved from their homes in Brooklyn, New York, and will live with their parents in their respective childhood homes (George with his wife, Kate Bass, and their two pets).
Lehrman, who is in the third year of a five-year cantorial studies program, will return to Brooklyn in August. But Altshuler and Bass have moved to the Bay Area indefinitely. He will complete his final year of rabbinical studies remotely and seek a permanent position as a Reformed congregation rabbi, hopefully in the Bay Area, upon graduation. Bass has a new job as a lawyer.
Both Altshuler and Lehrman forged their own paths to bimah.
Lehrman grew up in Los Altos and attended Beth Am with her family. His sister Chayva, 33, is a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, and his mother, Loree Farrar, is a former president of Beth Am.
He credits his mother, who sang in the Beth Am choir throughout his youth, for instilling in him a love of prayer services and singing.
“Going to the services, what I remember the most is sitting next to my parents and almost having this conversation with them, and in particular with my mother, where we were just harmonizing with each other. with the others on the melodies we sang. And we just had a lot of fun,” Lehrman said. “That’s how I learned to pray and listen while singing.”
Lehrman knew from an early age that he wanted to work in the Jewish world, but admits he was not the perfect student for the bar mitzvah.
“The story goes that I was actually not very good at my Torah reading, to the point that Rabbi Yoshi [Zweiback] was worried and contacted my parents to make sure I practiced,” Lehrman recalled. “But I did, and here I am now.”
Even outside of the services, the Lehrman family was very musically inclined, with his father and older brother playing guitar and his sister and mother singing. Around the time of his bar mitzvah in 2006, Lehrman began playing drums. Still a percussionist today, he hopes to incorporate drums into prayer services in the future – but for the summer, Beth Am worshipers will see him with an acoustic guitar during Friday night services. Lehrman learned to play in 2020 when Shabbat services moved to Zoom due to the pandemic.
“I just put my head down and worked really hard,” he said of learning guitar. “I had to start playing, because I was leading Shabbat services and I was the only person accompanying me.”
Altshuler grew up in the Richmond district of San Francisco attending Sherith Israel, where his parents are still members. During his bar mitzvah and confirmation, he was “amazed and impressed” by both Rabbi Martin Weiner, who died just months ago, and Rabbi Larry Raphael, who died in 2019.
The sanctuary has really shaped and influenced me… Leading services and preaching in this space is really meaningful and really rewarding.
After graduating from Middlebury College in Vermont, Altshuler worked as a teacher and journalist, including at J. in 2012 and 2013, then taught journalism to students in Haiti for seven months. He also reported for Washington Jewish Week in Maryland and taught adult education in Washington, DC. It was while enrolled in a non-fiction writing program that he realized his calling as a rabbi.
“Whenever I had the freedom to write about whatever I could, I always wrote about Judaism, God and spirituality,” he said. “I realized how important Judaism content is to me and how much I value Jewish learning and Jewish thought.”
Prior to his rabbinical internship at Sherith Israel, Altshuler was a rabbinical intern last year at B’nai Israel Synagogue, a Reform congregation in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
“It’s hard to be Jewish in North Dakota,” Altshuler said. “I have a lot of admiration for the people who devote time to it,” he added, calling the Jewish community “sweet” and “supportive.”
In June, Altshuler and his wife – along with their greyhound Noah, named after the Prophet, and the cat DB – drove from New York to San Francisco in his 1999 Volvo, snapping photos as they crossed the borders of the ‘State.
Altshuler is part of HUC’s five-year rabbinical studies program and is also a Bonnie and Daniel Tisch Rabbinical Fellow, a HUC program. The scholarship paid for the summer portion of his internship, and Sherith Israel will pay him to stay on through his fifth year, dedicating 10 hours a week to the congregation.
“I can observe the rabbi [Jessica Zimmerman] Graf and learn from her what it is to be a rabbi,” he said. “I do a bit of everything.” This includes giving sermons, co-leading prayer services, teaching Torah study, participating in staff and committee meetings, and comforting sick congregants.
Being back in Sherith Israel’s sanctuary means a lot to Altshuler.
“The shrine itself is majestic and fantastical and potentially one of the most beautiful shrines in the world,” he said, describing the more than 1,000 arching bulbs on the domed ceiling and an iconic stained glass window depicting Moses at Yosemite. The temple was dedicated in 1905.
“The shrine really shaped and influenced me from a very young age,” Altshuler said. “Leading services and preaching in this space is really meaningful and really rewarding.
Outside of working hours, Altshuler works part-time as Associate Night Minister for the San Francisco Night Departmentwhere he began working as a clinical pastoral intern last summer, providing pastoral care to homeless residents.
“I walked the streets of the Tenderloin and other areas of San Francisco from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. and spoke to homeless people,” he said, noting that he will continue this work. and that it will also provide the ministry’s telephone hotline.
Altshuler and Lehrman, who are friends through HUC, plan to meet. “It’s cool that we’re doing this,” Altshuler said, noting that it’s a happy coincidence that they’re overlapping in the Bay Area for the summer.