Jewish Journal


March 4, 2004

Rabbi Leaving Beth Jacob for Israel


Joel Landau has the credentials to access the power centers of his rabbinic peers from divergent theological camps.

Landau, rabbi of the Modern Orthodox synagogue, Beth Jacob Congregation of Irvine, is the only non-Chabad member of the all-Orthodox Rabbinic Council of Orange County. With the exception of Landau, its 18 members are leaders of Chabad shuls and school and have shouldered responsibility for providing kosher supervision for stores, caterers and hotels and arranging beit din, or rabbinic courts, for religious divorces. But Landau also is a member and current president of the county's Board of Rabbis, made up of clergy from Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative shuls.

With entrée in both spheres and his own bent for community involvement, Landau's influence is felt far beyond Beth Jacob, which was his first full time pulpit 11 years ago.

Colleagues respect and admire his diplomacy, which has instilled a culture of collegiality and cooperation here between Jewish denominations that are often fractious and insular elsewhere.

As a result, peers already mourn losing Landau, who announced Jan. 13 that he intends to return to Israel, a move now postponed for tax reasons until sometime this summer.

"I think it's a big loss," said Rabbi David Eliezrie of North County Chabad Center in Yorba Linda, the Rabbinic Council's president.

"He served as a bridge to the Orthodox and the Jewish establishment," said Eliezrie, who recently was asked to join the local board of the O.C. Jewish Federation. Eliezrie serves as a national liaison for New York-based Chabad-Lubavitch to United Jewish Communities, the 156-community federation system.

Landau made a unique contribution by helping sensitize the non-Orthodox to the beliefs and needs of those who are more observant, Eliezrie said. For example, he said, Landau played a persuasive role in recent discussions over whether the new Jewish Community Center in Irvine would be open on the Sabbath. "He really was a partner."

"Landau sees the importance in being part of the community," said Rabbi Shelton Donnell of Santa Ana's Temple Beth Sholom. "This doesn't happen in many Jewish communities. Pressure is brought on the Orthodox to not in any way give legitimacy to other streams [of Judaism.]"

"It doesn't mean he accepts the beliefs," Donnell said. "He's able to participate without agreeing with our religious position."

A consequence, Donnell said, is that "Eliezrie participates more because of Landau."

"He opened the door," agreed Rabbi Heidi Cohen, also of Beth Sholom, who will succeed Landau on July 1, becoming the non-Orthodox rabbinic board's first female president. "We need to make sure we continue it," she said, referring to Chabad participation in communal Jewish activities. "The bridge has to come from more than one man."

Landau, 40, self-assured and given to button-downed formality, possesses a knack for anticipating needs small and large.

"He had a vision for the community," said Joan Kaye, director of the Bureau of Jewish Education, who sought Landau as a study partner. She remembered calling him on a Friday afternoon as he was attending to seating arrangements for a Shabbat dinner. When she suggested delegating the job, Landau told her, "I'm the only one who knows everyone. I want to make sure they're comfortable."

He omitted mentioning that lack of an executive director means the rabbi assumes many administrative functions at Beth Jacob, a congregation that grew to 300 families from 100 during Landau's tenure. A synagogue search committee is beginning its work to find a replacement, he said.

A combination of events has propelled Landau to make a major career transition and return to Israel, where he was educated, served in the military and where all of his 60-member immediate family reside. He has dual citizenship, having moved at age 11 to Israel with his parents.

"I have spoken about the importance of living in Israel on numerous occasions over the years," he said in a letter to congregants. "Well my friends, the time has come for me to practice what I preach."

Landau intends to redirect his ease at connecting with Jews of differing religious views to speed financial help to intifada victims reportedly neglected by Israel's government.

Beginning last June, Beth Jacob's monthly bulletin went beyond its typical content about an upcoming holiday and honoring contributors. Instead, Landau profiled the plight of a different Israeli receiving aid from All For Israel, a New York-based nonprofit run by volunteers. Congregants consistently wrote checks for about $4,000 each month for individual victims, one of very few synagogues around the country making such sustained contributions.

"I'm very proud of the fact that Beth Jacob has done that," Landau said. "I'd like to facilitate more congregations doing it. The government is overwhelmed by the crises."

The all-volunteer group has distributed about $4 million to victims of terrorist attacks since the intifada's start in September 2000. The group has matured enough that organizers want to hire their first leader.

"I asked an innocent question, 'Do you need help?' They said, 'Funny you should ask,'" Landau said in describing how the opportunity surfaced.

Landau's familiarity in Israel and within the American Jewish community make him a natural for the job.

"I'd like to go to Reform and Conservative synagogues on Shabbat and talk about relations in the Jewish community and Israel, to bridge gaps both in America and Israel," Landau said.

Over the next few months, Landau plans to line up institutional support from philanthropists or foundations to underwrite All For Israel's administrative costs and his own salary.

"I have very strong feelings about pure giving. By this I mean 100 percent giving to the victim," he said, adding that the lack of transparency over distributing donations by some institutions is breeding distrust with grass-roots givers.

Landau and his wife, Johni, expect to live in Ramat Beit Shemesh, west of Jerusalem. Their youngest child will enter high school next fall and is begging to attend in Israel like two older siblings.

Landau hopes to find a weekend pulpit to reach secular Jews, who he believes are alienated. "I'm not looking for them to become Orthodox but to enrich their Jewish identity, which I think is deficient," he said.

Aside from occasional trips to U.S. congregations for financial support, Landau anticipates his new job will include investigating and validating the claims of victims. Some endure years of financial hardship while seeking government aid, because of contradicting eligibility standards of Israel's Social Security and Health ministries.

For example, he said, mental trauma is not considered a disability by the Social Security Ministry. Yet, post-traumatic stress can be as disabling as physical injury, he said.

"If you die in a terrorist attack, the government makes a payment to the family. If you're injured, you'll get money immediately," he said, but obtaining ongoing aid requires establishing disability through a review panel, a process that can take years.

"These are real, serious life problems," Landau said. "Diaspora Jews can help -- have a responsibility to help."

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