For a Great Neck Synagogue, Another First

FEW people would probably be surprised to learn that the teenage boy who liked to spend his time studying the Torah ended up becoming a rabbi. Unless, of course, the boy happened to be Japanese.

But last month Temple Isaiah of Great Neck tapped Ted Tsuruoka, 54, a second-generation Japanese-American and a first-generation Jew, as its spiritual leader.

”We think it’s a real positive that our new rabbi has a rich Japanese heritage to bring us a new base of experience, and that he’s a convert, someone who chose to embrace Judaism,” said Bernard Rosenberg, a founder of the 33-year-old synagogue and a member of the board of directors that voted unanimously to offer Mr. Tsuruoka the job.

Terry Joseph, the president of the synagogue, a Reform congregation in Great Neck Plaza with 178 families, said, ”It was love at first sight.” But Ms. Joseph admits the search committee was worried about how the congregation would view its choice.

”Some of our congregants who felt wary at first now refer to him warmly as ‘my rabbi,’ ” she said. ”There’s something about him that draws you in. Our differences simply melt away, and you realize how little they matter.”

Mordecai Waxman, who has been the head rabbi at Temple Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Great Neck, for 50 years, said: ”By converting, he did what a good many people today choose to do. What’s remarkable is that the temple decided to take a chance on him.” Temple Isaiah, which holds its services at the Community Church of Great Neck, is known for taking risks. In 1985, it hired the first woman as a rabbi in Great Neck and 10 years before that, it employed a blind cantor who brought his seeing-eye dog up to the pulpit with him. ”All our firsts have worked out well for us, and so will this one,” Mr. Rosenberg said.

This will be Mr. Tsuruoka’s first rabbinical appointment. ”From 1995 to 1997 I served as president of my temple in Lynbrook,” he explained, ”and the experience made me realize I wanted to become a rabbi. I had just turned 50, and I knew what I really wanted to do was excite others with what excites me.”

He is a third-year student in the five-year nondenominational program at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Manhattan. Before that, Mr. Tsuruoka (pronounced T’sir-ROE-kah) worked as a research associate, the director of research and then chief financial officer at Planned Parenthood Federation of America until 1979, when he left to expand his family’s picture-framing business.

”It’s not all that unusual for a rabbi to still be a student,” said Lloyd Perell, the head of the committee that chose Mr. Tsuruoka. ”When we called the academy’s placement director, we were told there is a well-documented shortage of ordained rabbis but that they could send us some resumes of students.”

Mr. Perell recalled with amusement that Mr. Tsuruoka arrived for an interview at the same time as a group of Chinese members of another congregation that also shares space in the Community Church’s building.

”We nodded politely to each other and assumed he belonged with them, and turned to look up the street to await our candidate,” Mr. Perell said. ”Then he approached us, and we saw he was wearing a yarmulke, and we realized our candidate had arrived.”

Even though Mr. Tsuruoka is not yet ordained, Mr. Perell said that the congregation addresses him as rabbi. ”Rabbi means teacher,” Mr. Perell explained. ”That’s a fine thing to call our new spiritual leader.”

Mr. Tsuruoka apparently likes that role. ”I have always seen myself as an educator,” he said. ”My father was a merchant, but his love was education, and I grew up with a deep, immutable respect for learning.”

Mr. Tsuruoka holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology from City College and a master’s degree in demography from Georgetown University, but as a child, he excelled in mathematics and hoped to become a physicist. ”But as a teenager, when I felt the first inkling of mortality, I began to study religion with great interest.”

Although he was passionate about his bible study classes at Riverside Church, near his family’s apartment on 109th Street in Manhattan, all his close friends were Jewish. ”Every weekend during my teen years there were Shabbat dinners and bar and bat mitzvahs in the neighborhood, Mr. Tsuruoka said. ”I went to all of them and loved them.”

His Bible teachers noticed that he gravitated toward the Old Testament and suggested that he study with a local rabbi.

”I converted formally to Judaism at the age of 22, but in my heart I was already Jewish at 18,” Mr. Tsuruoka said. ”I had a feeling from very early on in my teens that this was the right place for me.”

His parents, church-going Methodists, were initially opposed to his decision. ”They talked to me for a long time to determine for themselves if this was just a form of adolescent fantasy,” he said. ”Finally, my mom was convinced it was not. She said to me, ‘As long as God is in your life, it’s O.K. with me.’ ”

Mr. Tsuruoka’s grandparents immigrated to the United States from Japan shortly before World War I. Although they had been Buddhists, they joined the Methodist Church after their arrival. ”Conversion was only one generation away in my family,” Mr. Tsuruoka said. ”This fluidity of religious identity made it easier for me to follow where my heart led me.”

At camp the summer he was 19, he met a young Jewish musician, Linda Brody, who took him home to meet her parents. ”They were less concerned with religious issues than with problems they thought might stem from an interracial marriage,” he said. ”They were concerned we wouldn’t fit anywhere, but we always found a home in the Jewish community. When we moved to Valley Stream, we joined the temple led by the rabbi who introduced us at camp.”

Today, Mr. and Mrs. Tsuruoka have two children, Jeff, 30, and Amy Paymer, 27. Like many Jewish parents, Mr. Tsuruoka became active in his synagogue when his son turned 10 ”and was in striking distance of a bar mitzvah,” he said. ”I studied along with him, and Hebrew became a passion. Our rabbi asked me to chant from the Torah on the high holidays, a great honor, and to the surprise of everyone in the congregation, including myself, I did it.”

Five years ago, at the age of 49, after he had been elected as president of the congregation, Mr. Tsuruoka had his own bar mitzvah. ”From the point of conversion until the time you feel authentically Jewish takes a long time,” he said. ”This was a turning point for me.”

Although he speaks French, German, Hebrew and some Yiddish, he admits to knowing only enough Japanese ”to know when someone is talking about me,” he said. ”My life’s path has always come clear to me through language,” he added. ”When I read from the sacred scrolls, I can hear the century of discourse that went on before me. I can hear the voices, the cacophony concentrating on a single line of Torah. To me that’s like approaching divinity.”

Although he does not know of other Asian rabbis in the country, Mr. Tsuruoka believes his own background makes him especially sensitive to certain issues. ”My special interests are conversion and interfaith marriage,” he said. ”These are areas for which I have a great deal of feeling and knowledge. It’s a way I know to make people’s spiritual home a more peaceful place.”

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