When Temple Isaiah Installed Theodore Truruoka as Full-time Rabbi, it was Another Step in a Decades-long Journey of Faith
Sabbath services at Temple Isaiah of Great Neck move forward on this special Friday night after the usual minor adjustments to the host sanctuary.
To turn the Community Church of Great Neck – Temple’s Isaiah’s home for its 37 years of existence – into a Jewish sanctuary, a burgundy-and-gold Star of David banner has been hoisted high via a pulley system so that it screens the church crucifix. To complete the transformation, a portable ark is carried near the pulpit to offer access to the synagogue’s two Torahs. Yet this is no ordinary night at Temple Isaiah, a Reform congregation whose search for a home and spiritual fulfillment holds similarities to the background of its religious leader, Rabbi Theodore Tsuruoka.
From convert to leader
Tsuruoka, 58, of Valley Stream, a Japanese-American who converted to Judaism at age 22, is being officially installed as spiritual leader after four years as a part-time rabbi. With Tsuruoka’s wife, Linda, his mother, Haruno Tsuruoka of Somers, N.Y., and other family members attending, the installation merits speeches, song and a little humor. “I don’t understand why they call it an installation,” said Rabbi Bernard Zlotowitz, a Bible professor at the Academy for Jewish Religion in the Bronx who has known Tsuruoka for 20 years. “You install a light bulb. … I prefer to call this night a coronation.”
Zlotowitz seals the transfer of rabbinical authority with a ritual laying on of hands and, apparently, an impromptu kiss to Tsuruoka’s forehead. “Now I will be able to focus my entire energy toward the needs of the congregation,” Tsuruoka says from the pulpit. “My charge as rabbi is to help you find your way to Torah.” That spiritual journey should soon become more convenient for this Reform congregation, founded in 1967 by a handful of dissidents from another synagogue. The membership, which has held steady at about 120 families, expects to relocate soon to nearby Great Neck Plaza.
At a cost of about $1.5 million, the shuttered Uncle Chau’s Chinese restaurant in Great Neck Plaza will be refitted with a sanctuary, a school wing and meeting rooms, says Stephen Fein of Great Neck, an attorney in Queens and Temple Isaiah’s president. An architect is modeling the temple “after the caves in Israel that are lit from above,” Fein says. Tsuruoka’s “becoming our rabbi proved a catalyst” for turning “what is essentially now an abandoned building into a work of art.”
Fein said that Tsuruoka offered leadership, a sense of confidence and “a strong, positive presence that it was the right thing to do.” Tsuruoka was hired four years ago while still immersed in rabbinical studies, and he quickly turned the job into a full-time occupation. “If there are 24 hours in the day, the rabbi stretches it to 36,” former Temple president Terry Joseph said in a speech during the installation.
A spiritual, searching life
The ordination and installation capped a life of spiritual searching for Tsuruoka, whose Japanese immigrant grandparents and California- born parents were held in a World War II internment camp in Poston, Ariz. Tsuruoka’s parents met during a dance at the camp. They were married in 1945 and moved to Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where Tsuruoka was born the following year and was raised as a Methodist amid a large Jewish community. “Being the only non-Jewish kid, I got invited to a lot of bar mitzvahs,” Tsuruoka recalls. He decided to learn more about Judaism after a probing conversation with the pastor at Manhattan’s Riverside Church. Tsuruoka recalled that he had several things he needed to know: How can he relate to God in a way that was spiritually meaningful to him? Did he need to achieve grace through an intermediary? Or was it something that he could achieve on a more intimate basis with God? “The questions I had,” Tsuruoka said he was told by the pastor, “were better answered by a Jewish person.”
So he crossed the street to the Jewish Theological Seminary. By age 19, when he met his future wife, Linda, who was born Jewish, Tsuruoka was already on his way to his formal conversion at age 22. A graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, Tsuruoka earned a bachelor of arts degree in sociology and a bachelor of science in math from City College in Manhattan, a masters in population research and a doctorate in math from Georgetown University. He worked in his family’s custom framing business and as the chief financial officer for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in Manhattan.
A bar mitzvah at 50
He made his bar mitzvah at age 50 while serving as president of Temple Emanuel in Lynbrook, his former congregation. Many of his friends from that synagogue came out to cheer him at Temple Isaiah. “After two careers, both in business,” Tsuruoka says, “it became clear to me that I wanted to teach and share what I had learned about Judaism with other people. … I wanted to express my own enthusiasm about Judaism with others.”
Tsuruoka’s decisions to convert and become a rabbi exemplify “the changing face of Judaism,” says Hasia R. Diner, professor of American Jewish history at New York University in Manhattan and author of “The Jews of the United States” (University of California Press) a one-volume history to be published later this year. “The entry of converts who come from very different religious and ethnic traditions into Judaism is historically significant,” says Diner. “There’s a real opportunity for Judaism to redefine itself in more spiritual terms where heretofore it’s been primarily understood in ethnic terms.”
No raised eyebrows
At Temple Isaiah, having a rabbi whose ethnic background differs from most of the congregation raises no eyebrows. “We’ve tried frankly to do many things that I think are unusual,” says Bernard Rosenberg of Great Neck, a retired certified public accountant and Temple Isaiah’s first president, from 1967 until 1969. “We’ve had a blind cantor who used to be on the bimah with a seeing-eye dog.” Fein called Temple Isaiah a “very heymisher” place – using the Yiddish word for homey. “No one cares what you wear on Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah,” he said. That weekend, Tsuruoka was back at work, performing a Saturday morning bat mitzvah and a Sunday unveiling at Beth David Cemetery in Elmont. Then there was a Monday meeting to discuss the religious school schedule. “A typical week for a rabbi,” Tsuruoka said. It was no accident that his path converged with Temple Isaiah’s at this crucial moment, Tsuruoka says: “I don’t believe there are any mistakes in life. Everything seems to have a reason, and when the reasons are right, it’s as though it just crystallizes.”