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

Image: Claudio Papapietro

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.”

Tsuruoka himself freely admits he was not always sure where he fit in. His grandparents were Buddhists but converted to Methodism upon arrival in the United States. His parents met during World War II while imprisoned at an internment camp for Japanese Americans in Arizona, and later moved to New York.

Tsuruoka was raised Methodist on Manhattan’s Upper West Side before his parents began attending the nearby Riverside Church. He said he met a cadre of Jewish friends while attending P.S. 165 and the Bronx High School of Science.

When Tsuruoka was 16, he realized something wasn’t connecting during his religious studies. Spurred by a pastor, Tsuruoka walked across Broadway to the Jewish Theological Seminary to discuss his feelings about God with a rabbi. By age 22, Tsuruoka had become an unlikely convert to Judaism.

“The questions I was asking the minster weren’t terribly satisfying, and just not connecting me with my feelings towards God,” Tsuruoka said. “I felt more comfortable at the Jewish Theological Seminary, primarily because the connection with God was more direct.”

Tsuruoka said he considered his relationship with Judaism over the next three decades to be “more of an intellectual pursuit,” as he studied texts and pored over the works of such sages as Maimonides. It wasn’t until Tsuruoka’s children — he is married to the Jewish musician Linda Tsuruoka — began attending synagogue that he took his “spiritual journey” more seriously.

So at age 50, after being named president of the synagogue his family attended, Temple Emanu-El (now Temple Am Echad) in Lynbrook, N.Y., Tsuruoka became a bar mitzvah.

“Part of what I was sort of missing in my Judaic mental chip, so to speak, was a synagogue experience,” Tsuruoka said.

Tsuruoka worked for many years as a finance official for Planned Parenthood and then ran a picture framing business. He decided that his next step was to attend rabbinical school at the Academy for Jewish Religion. Tsuruoka said he has never experienced any discomfort over being an Asian-American rabbi, nor does he care about detractors who question his “Jewishness.”

“The fact that I’m Asian, so what?” Tsuruoka said. “Just because I come from another part of the world doesn’t put me out of humanity. Judaism, because they can accept all races from humanity, drew me to being Jewish.”

Among his congregants, there are no questions as to his authenticity. Stephen Fein, a former president at Temple Isaiah, recalled a trip the congregation took to Israel a few years ago that he said exemplified Tsuruoka’s connection to Judaism.

“As he guided the flock, when we were where Ben-Gurion read the Declaration of Independence, the look on his face was incredible,” Fein said.” It means so much to him.”

Members of Temple Isaiah were also uncritical of Tsuruoka’s age when they hired him, saying he provides wisdom from life experience that a rabbi ordained at a younger age would likely not have. That factor has possibly drawn older residents of Great Neck to Temple Isaiah.

“We seem to be picking up people who rejoin after a hiatus, after the kids were bar mitzvahed,” said Gordon, who added that Temple Isaiah has a variety of adult education classes. “The people who reach a point in their lives who want to rejoin the synagogue.”

In Great Neck, the synagogue stands out for its success. Though the area once boasted more than a dozen synagogues, the aging population and a decrease in attendance have led to merging congregations. “My concentration has really been to serve the needs of a congregation whose needs change as they get older, to guide the journey of the last third of their lives,” Tsuruoka said.

Tsuruoka’s own journey finally has a set destination, after 67 years of navigating many different stages of a complex spiritual journey.

“I have reached the point in my life where I can continue to do this as long as I have breath in my body, God willing, to be a teacher of Torah, to be meaningful in other people’s lives, to help them enhance Jewish identity,” Tsuruoka said. “This is what I realize I was meant to do.”

Contact Seth Berkman at feedback@forward.com

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Seth Berkman

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

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