Richard Alan Flom is a rabbi come lately. Now the rabbi at Burbank Temple Emanu El, a Conservative synagogue, Flom was 41 before he entered rabbinical school, after a successful career as a lawyer and a management consultant. And it was not like he had always had a spiritual bent either.
"The whole idea of rabbinical school --even now when I think about it -- just seems strange," said 48-year-old Flom in an interview with The Journal. "When I was a kid growing up, anybody that I knew who kept kosher was either my Bubbe or Zaide or somebody who I thought was really weird. None of it computed for me when I was young. I was raised in the classic tradition of, 'We belong to a Conservative synagogue, but except for me being dropped off at Hebrew school, we never went.'"
Flom was completely irreligious until he married Lynn Kronzk 22 years ago. "The rabbi marrying us asked us, 'What do you do Jewishly?' and I said, 'We don't do a damn thing. We don't do anything Jewishly.' He said, 'Promise me you'll light candles Friday night. You don't have to make a blessing or make "Kiddush," but just light the candles.' So we started lighting candles, and then we started saying blessings, and then, because we like to drink wine, we started drinking wine with 'Kiddush.'"
Flom found that his increasing interest in religion corresponded with his decreasing interest in the legal profession. Upset with the lack of collegiality and the prevarication he encountered as a lawyer, Flom yearned for something more. "Certainly, there were monetary rewards, but at the end of the day, I didn't feel like I had done anything meaningful or useful," he said. "It sounds really corny to say, but I wanted to answer to a higher authority."
The opportunity to answer to a higher authority came when Flom was offered a job teaching ethics at the MBA program at the University of Judaism. There he met a lot of rabbis and rabbinical students. "I thought, I could really get into this, and so in 1995, I enrolled in the ordination program," he said.
In 2000, Flom met up again with the rabbi who performed his wedding ceremony. "I said, 'Look what you started. You got me to light candles in 1980, and now I am graduating from rabbinical school.' He told me that he had 'pulled a Chabad on me' (referring to Chabad's campaign to get people to light Shabbat candles)."
The lesson that Flom drew from his religious journey is that in matters of faith, nothing is instant. "You can't expect to say something to somebody and overnight change their lives," he said. "As a rabbi, you might never see the results of your labor, or it might be 15 or 20 years later before you see some results."
During his tenure at Burbank Temple Emanu El, Flom hopes to inspire the 130 member families of his congregation to grow as Jews, and he wants them to understand that there is a Jewish way of doing things that might be different to what their Christian neighbors do. He plans to develop a Bikkur Cholim program so that his congregants can understand the Jewish way to visit and comfort the sick, and he hopes to use every opportunity he can to teach his congregants Jewish texts.
"To me, adult education, family education, teaching from the bima or speaking at a bris, are all teaching moments," he said. "People don't realize it, but they can actually learn Torah at a bris. I like to teach --and perhaps that is part of my legal background, because good lawyers educate their clients."
Flom describes his congregation as an active bunch of middle-class families, ranging from young couples with newborns to people celebrating their 60th wedding anniversaries. The community boasts a sisterhood and men's club, a 50-student pre-school and a religious school. It is the only Conservative synagogue in the area.
Flom hopes to increase membership in the synagogue by 50 percent, and he also hopes that his congregation will be able to grow spiritually, just as he did. He wants to create a "hands-on" approach to Jewish practice, with congregants reading from the Torah, leading services and getting involved with Jewish textual study.
"What drew me here was the potential for growth," he said. "The congregation wants to grow physically, but they want to grow Jewishly, too. Programs that cause us all to grow in terms of our knowledge and in terms of our practice might or might not draw new members, but it will improve our membership, and that is really important to me."
"I want the members to develop as Jews, and to understand, as I learned, that [religious growth] is a ladder," he said. "Even if you go up only one rung higher than you were before, then you have still advanced."