Known as a flat-picking, singing, guitar-playing rabbi with a knack for off-beat Jewish tunes at the congregations he's served back East, Rabbi Laurence Milder is the ideal successor to take the reins at Congregation Beth Emek in Pleasanton, a lively singing group of more than 200 families.
Many turned out for a welcoming reception at Beth Emek's modern worship center July 14, including Dublin Mayor Tim Sbranti and Pleasanton Mayor Jerry Thorne and his wife Sandi, among other city and civic leaders. Milder left his guitar in his office but used the occasion to introduce his wife Janet and daughter Miriam, a recent college graduate. The couple also has two sons, Avi, who is currently in college, and Alex, who will complete his senior year of high school in the coming year at the American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, N.C., where Milder most recently served as the Academy's Reform Rabbi.
Milder, a native of St. Louis, succeeds Rabbi David Katz, who served as interim rabbi at Beth Emek while congregants searched for a full-time leader. Known for his exceptional pastoral and teaching skills, Milder has served congregations in Indianapolis, Bangor, Maine, and Westborough, Mass. He has also served as an assistant professor at the University of Maine, a lecturer at the Bangor Theological Seminary, and since July 2011 on the faculty at the Hebrew Academy where he served as its "reform" rabbi. Those achievements along with his work with community groups and the local clergy in other faiths were the mutual attractions that brought him to Pleasanton and a congregation here that is known for its outreach throughout the Tri-Valley.
As the new face at Beth Emek, Milder plans to participate in interfaith clergy groups and develop close relations with city leaders, business organizations, charitable groups and professional and volunteer service clubs. While he sees the most important functions of a rabbi to be a worship leader at Beth Emek, he also believes that a good rabbi must excel at teaching adults and children, serving as a resource for those searching for deeper meanings in their religion and being a good listener and sometimes adviser to those needing spiritual guidance as they deal with personal or family issues. Rabbis are here to help people transitioning in their lives, Milder says, whether it be changes brought on by marriage, births, children leaving for college or even the death of a loved one.
Milder emphasizes his identification as a Reform Rabbi, noting that Beth Emek is a part of the Union for Reformed Judaism, the largest group of Jews in the U.S. and Canada. It's a movement that is committed to a modern and progressive vision of Judaism, which makes him a good match for the congregants at Beth Emek who are known for their concerns for social justice and volunteer services. He also plans to reach out to the broader Tri-Valley community to help energize Beth Emek's membership and help the congregation grow and thrive.
As he said at the July 14 reception, Beth Emek is part of a larger culture, a secular society, where people are free to come and go in terms of their spiritual affiliation. The most important focus as a congregation is to lower the barriers, to ensure that people understand that they are welcome, that we have a place that is inclusive, that embraces Jews from all backgrounds and invites them to explore their Judaism in a safe and accepting environment.
Milder believes that the most important thing that Beth Emek families can do is to establish their sense of integrity and wholeness within their congregation so that when people ask what kind of a synagogue Beth Emek is, "we can say we are a place where you can feel comfortable coming to."
No one has to be Jewish to attend services at Beth Emek, which are held at 8 p.m. Fridays and at 10:30 a.m. Saturdays. In fact many in the congregation are not Jewish because of a number of inter-married families. Milder says he's found that non-Jews often find significant spiritual meaning in worship at Jewish services and feel especially comfortable in a Reform synagogue such as Beth Emek's.
As the new spiritual leader at Beth Emek, Milder might draw larger numbers when he picks up his guitar and goes solo and acoustic with songs he learned from performing with the Boston-based Jewish rock band Elijah Rock. His life-long personal interest in music is clearly a gift he now plans to share and enjoy with his Beth Emek congregation.