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Jewish Journal

Car Crash Claims Beloved Northridge Rabbi

by Marc Ballon

November 17, 2005 | 7:00 pm

Rabbi Steven Tucker

Rabbi Steven Tucker

The beloved rabbi of a Northridge synagogue apparently committed suicide in the wake of personal disclosures that jeopardized his job. These disclosures had to do with allegedly "inappropriate" actions by the rabbi, but nothing that was criminal or illegal, said officials of Temple Ramat Zion.

This new information emerged Thursday night at a congregational meeting that was held to address questions and concerns.

Rabbi Steven Tucker, 47, the longtime spiritual leader of Ramat Zion in Northridge, died in a solo car crash that authorities have called a suicide. He left behind a lengthy note whose contents have not been released. Tucker's speeding car veered off Wawona Road near the Wawona Tunnel in Yosemite National Park at about 7 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 10.

Temple officials presided over a somber and reverential Sabbath services last weekend, but initially released no information about the rabbi's death even as rumors swirled about his job status.

More than 300 congregants attended the Thursday gathering at Ramat Zion, which was called by the board of directors. The meeting was not open to the media, but the temple released a brief pubic statement at the start, and a temple spokesperson also answered some questions afterwards.

The temple's account of events is that its executive committee had voted to recommend against offering a new contract for Rabbi Tucker. The full board of the temple had not yet acted on this recommendation at the time of the rabbi's death. One factor in the evaluation was information about the rabbi that came to light during a review process.

"Rabbi Tucker subsequently indicated to the executive committee that he had engaged in behavior which was not criminal in nature, but was determined by the rabbi and the executive committee to be inappropriate behavior for a rabbi," said synagogue board president and executive committee member Bill Wendorff. All parties agreed to keep the information confidential.

Tucker's car was traveling at high speed when it left the pavement and then rolled, said Gail Sgambellone, the assistant coroner for Mariposa County. Parts of that roadway are steep and treacherous.

Park rangers are investigating, but have called the incident a suicide because Tucker left a suicide note, Sgambellone said. Tucker's wife Gabrielle had reported her husband missing on Nov. 9.

News of the rabbi's death was met with disbelief and grief during Friday night services at Ramat Zion.

"It is with great sadness that I must tell you that our beloved Rabbi Tucker has passed away," Cantor Paul Dorman announced from the bimah to a standing-room only crowd of several hundred. "We are all here tonight to pay our respects to him, and we will never, never forget him."

Some congregants wept openly. Following a moment of silence, Dorman asked those gathered to chant the Mourner's Kaddish for Tucker, the father of three. He later recalled how Tucker would frequently ask him to sing the niggun after the Amidah. Following this tradition, the cantor led the congregation in the wordless chant.

Congregants described Tucker as a gentle, caring man. He also attained prominence among his peers, once serving as president of the Pacific Southwest chapter of the Rabbinical Assembly, a leadership organization for Conservative rabbis.

Rabbi Sally Olins, who later succeeded Tucker as president and became the first woman to head the chapter, called him a close friend and mentor.

Tucker had the gift of always seeing the lightness of life and putting a smile on people's faces with his warmth, said Rabbi Moshe Rothblum of Adat Ari El in North Hollywood.

"There's an expression that a person is the same on the inside as on the outside," Rothblum said. "I think that for Steven Tucker that was true. He came across as a mensch, and he was a mensch."

Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills called Tucker "a healer of people."

Born in San Bernardino and raised in Costa Mesa, Tucker had a lifelong love affair with Judaism that blossomed during his undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley. After his graduation in 1980, he decided to become the first rabbi in his family.

Following his 1987 ordination at the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, Tucker accepted a posting at an East Windsor, N.J. synagogue. He came to Temple Ramat Zion in August 1992, replacing Rabbi Solomon Rothstein.

"There is a great need here for some quality Jewish education," Tucker said of the synagogue in an interview prior to his installation.

On Friday, the synagogue community went ahead with a previously scheduled bar mitzvah, largely because it honored the rabbi's commitment to Jewish education.

"I think that it shows the synagogue that we ... continue with what our tradition is," Dorman said.

Several hundred mourners attended funeral services for Tucker on Nov. 15 at Mount Sinai Memorial Park in Simi Valley.

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