When Rabbi Cheryl Rosenstein moved to Bakersfield to work at Temple Beth El, she didn't know what to expect. A native Californian originally from Long Beach, she was working in St. Paul, Minn. before she took the job here, thinking working in Bakersfield would be as close to home as she could get.
Now, 26 years later, Rosenstein has lived here longer than anywhere else, but this summer she will leave Bakersfield and Temple Beth El to start her second act in Northern California.
"The grass might literally have been greener elsewhere, but people in Bakersfield, including the Jewish people, are salt of the earth," Rosenstein said of what kept her here so long. "This is a place where people look out for each other, take care of each other. If someone's in trouble they all rally to help that person. I sensed a real community here."
Before she goes, Rosenstein's congregation will honor her on Saturday with a special award and dinner. The rabbi will receive the Hillel award, which is named after an ancient Jewish sage and author of many teachings. Temple Beth El gives the award to those who exemplify Hillel's teaching, with past recipients including former Mayor Harvey Hall, Howard Silver of Congregation B'nai Jacob and philanthropists Milton and Betty Younger.
"This is a great honor that they're bestowing on me," Rosenstein said. "It's a really loving way for the congregation to show its appreciation."
Looking back on her 26 years at Temple Beth El, Rosenstein, 55, said she hasn't seen it as being "punctuated by a series of big things. It's been more quiet work with people, with families, with individuals."
Rosenstein moved here in 1993 with her husband, Richard Shiell. She had recently turned 30, and it was her second job out of rabbinic school. The rabbi before her was Steve Peskind, who was there for 13 years. It was more than nine months before Rosenstein took his place.
One project the congregation undertook with Rosenstein's encouragement was rebuilding the Bright Beginnings Learning Center about 15 years ago, she said.
Another thing Temple Beth El has worked hard at in Rosenstein's time is "warming the relationship" between their congregation and Congregation B'nai Jacob, which is more conservative. Temple Beth El split from B'nai Jacob more than 70 years ago.
"There had been tensions between the two communities that were still kind of at an undertow when I got here, even all those years later," Rosenstein said. "We worked together to run a joint religious school for all the children, which was important because in a small Jewish community, the Jewish kids should know one another."
Though that joint school is no longer around, "from that time, there began to be some more traction to strengthen the bond," Rosenstein said. The two congregations now regularly organize the Jewish Food Festival and have quarterly joint board meetings.
"The laypeople did all the leg work but I encouraged that cooperation," the rabbi said.
What she has enjoyed most has been the people and relationships, she said.
"I've taught an introduction to Judaism course for 26 years here. That's been tremendously rewarding. I think I've accompanied about 90 individuals to the mikveh, the ritual bath for the purposes of conversion."
Though she can't single out one or two favorite memories, Rosenstein said one of the best parts of working at Temple Beth El has been the congregation, which consists of about 130 households.
"This has been an incredibly rewarding rabbinate because lay involvement has been so strong," she said. "This congregation is a working congregation, the board is a working board, and when something needs to get done, they don't all leave it on my professional shoulders. They're willing to roll up their sleeves and do the work."
Soon Rosenstein's time at Temple Beth El will come to an end. There isn't yet a rabbi who will take her place, she said, and finding one is a process that could take months.
"Matching spiritual leaders with congregations is much like making marriages," she explained.
In the summer, Rosenstein and her husband will move to Sonoma County, the clean air at least part of its appeal.
"I'm leaving because the congregation has changed and I have changed and I think it's a good healthy moment for everyone concerned," Rosenstein said. "I think the congregation could use some fresh blood, some fresh leadership, and I'm at a point in my life where I am ready to try to reinvent myself and discover my second act, so to speak."
Rosenstein doesn't consider herself retiring, though. She said she will likely teach in some capacity and may find a rabbinic role in her new community.
"I'm leaving myself open to opportunity and seeing what walks in the door," she said.
Though she still has some time before she leaves town, Rosenstein is already hearing from people who are sad about her departure. She said there's definitely a sense of loss, especially since she has been there twice as long as any of her predecessors.
"There's grieving going on," she said. "That's touching to me. It's nice to know that you have made an impact on somebody's life and that they care enough to be sad when you leave."
But just because Rosenstein has left town won't mean she has fully left her congregation too.
"I've also let them know I'm not unfriending anybody on Facebook," she said. "(They) can still be in touch and they can still come and visit."