How an Asian Convert to Judaism Became Unlikely Leader of Unusual Synagogue

Rabbi Theodore Tsuruoka Brings Unique Background to Faith

Unusual Path: Rabbi Theodore Tsuruoka came to Judaism late in life. His unusual spiritual journey is seen as an asset by the leaders of Temple Isaiah of Great Neck, L.I., which has a history of making non-traditional decisions.
Claudio Papapietro
Unusual Path: Rabbi Theodore Tsuruoka came to Judaism late in life. His unusual spiritual journey is seen as an asset by the leaders of Temple Isaiah of Great Neck, L.I., which has a history of making non-traditional decisions.

By Seth Berkman

Published September 08, 2013, issue of September 13, 2013.
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What do a Japanese rabbi, a Korean church and a Chinese restaurant have in common?

For Temple Isaiah of Great Neck, on Long Island, N.Y., the answer’s no punch line. The three components have all played a crucial role in the congregation’s colorful 46-year history.

For 37 years, this Reform congregation held the majority of its services inside the Community Church of Great Neck, which serves as the spiritual center for much of the area’s Korean community. Today, Temple Isaiah stands in a space formerly occupied by Uncle Chau’s Chinese Restaurant (the restaurant was demolished, and the synagogue was built from the ground up).

As for the Japanese rabbi, that would be Theodore Tsuruoka, 67, who has led the congregation since 2000. Reflecting a message of inclusion that has touched a nerve in the community, Tsuruoka has been crucial in helping Temple Isaiah survive and expand while other Reform synagogues in the area struggle to stay afloat.

“Temple Isaiah has always been incredibly nonjudgmental,” Tsuruoka said. “It’s always been a congregation that has camaraderie. It’s truly Jewish in so many ways.”

For the rabbi and his unusual congregation, it was a case of love at first sight. Recalling his job interview, which was held during the summer in the church’s small basement, Tsuruoka said he was placed front and center in a sweltering-hot room packed with members.

“I took my jacket off, and they said this was the telling thing, that I felt comfortable enough to do that and talk to them as a brother,” Tsuruoka said.

“We just felt comfortable with each other,” said temple co-president Terry Joseph, who is Puerto Rican and converted to Judaism from Catholicism. “He took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and got into the conversation. Everyone left with a smile on their face.”

Tsuruoka grew up as a Christian and converted to Judaism. Along with Cantor Angela Buchdahl at Manhattan’s Central Synagogue, he is one of a handful of Asian-American rabbis.

Although he is a rarity in the faith as a whole, Tsuruoka was not a particularly shocking choice for Temple Isaiah, which has taken a unique approach to choosing its leadership. Prior to Tsuruoka, the synagogue hired Judy as rabbi. Gail Gordon, co-president of Temple Isaiah, said she believed Lewis was the first female rabbi on Long Island.

And for many years, the synagogue employed a blind cantor who was accompanied to the bimah by a seeing-eye dog.

“It’s not where you come from or what you look like,” Tsuruoka said. “I don’t think they went out of their way to hire us, I think it was just that was the person that fit there.”


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