When Michael Lezak imagined what his future as a rabbi might look like, he didn’t foresee a needle exchange or free HIV and hepatitis C testing next door to his office, or naloxone being administered at least once a week in his hallway to someone who has overdosed on heroin.
Nor, for that matter, did he imagine that his office would be in a church.
That church is Glide Memorial United Methodist Church. Founded by pastor emeritus Cecil Williams and his wife, Janice Mirikitani, Glide is located in the Tenderloin, one of San Francisco’s most impoverished neighborhoods, and as such, it has been ministering to its residents for 50 years, providing 2,000 meals daily and other social services—without judgment—along with a renowned gospel choir as part of its worship “celebrations,” in Glide parlance.
Lezak’s official title is staff rabbi at the Glide Center for Social Justice. In practice, the job that the 50-year-old Reform rabbi has carved out for himself in this past year and a half is unlike that of any other. Lezak calls his post “shlichut,” in that he is an emissary of the Jewish community.
This week, Lezak is in Alabama at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which memorializes the nearly 5,000-African Americans who were lynched in the South, with a group of Jews and Glide staff members, and some medical professionals, too. He brought a similar group to its opening last year.
Lezak believes that this memorial, the project of Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, is “the holiest spot in America” (Stevenson has greatly influenced the rabbi’s work). At last year’s opening ceremony, the Reverend Jesse Jackson had reminded Lezak of the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank in Georgia, reminding him that “this happened to your people, too.”
“This is fertile ground, where it isn’t a competition as to whose pain is greater, but where we can truly see and hear each other,” said Lezak.
Lezak’s position at Glide is funded by Jewish foundations and individual donors.
“The day I first brought him to Glide, the idea of him working there was not even a twinkle in our eye,” said Stephanie Rapp, senior program officer of Jewish life and special projects at the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, a lead funder of his position. “For many years, folks in the Jewish community, myself among them, had pondered this question of why wasn’t there a major Jewish social justice presence that serves people in need.” Rapp is a longtime observer of the social services landscape, since it is one of the Haas Fund’s priorities. “We realized that rather than trying to build something ourselves, there were already these amazing organizations doing the work, and could we just bring more Jewish people there to help?”
Lezak considers Rapp the “midwife” of his position.
Lezak’s highest priority is encouraging more Jews to become “social justice warriors.” He regularly brings groups from Jewish day schools and organizations on a tour of the Tenderloin.
“Hundreds of Jews are now coming every month,” he said. “I have zero interest in this being a drive-through. I want you to have a weekly justice practice, just as you do yoga and buy organic kale.”
Marilyn Heiss could be the poster child for his efforts. Heiss, a b’nai mitzvah tutor, bakes challah on Friday mornings for the Glide staff, but often ends up dishing out breakfast or lunch, too. When Lezak made this specific ask, she replaced the weekly minyan she had been attending for 18 years at her Conservative shul with bread baking.
“This is now the holiest thing I do,” said Heiss. “I wanted to have an answer when someone asked me, ‘What did you do as part of the resistance?’ Taking care of marginalized people gave me something concrete I could do.”
If not for her involvement at her second spiritual home, The Kitchen—the independent Jewish community in San Francisco led by Rabbi Noa Kushner, who is also Lezak’s wife—Heiss would not have found her way to Glide.
And she is far from the only one. A lot of Kitchen-ites are now regulars at Glide.
“Many of the people at Glide had never met Jews before,” said Heiss, “and to see us coming every week really makes a positive difference in how they think of us.”
As for the challah itself, Rita Shimmin, executive director of Glide, said it’s a small thing but the effects of it are huge. Glide staffers are often former clients who once relied on its services and meals themselves; working there, helping others, allows them to pay it forward. Most of them are struggling to survive on a meager salary in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
“He walks around distributing hot bread, and there’s this olfactory experience,” said Shimmin. “He’s connecting with people on all the dimensions that there are.”
Lezak easily recalls specific incidents that influenced his path. Raised in the San Fernando Valley in a Reform household, synagogue didn’t hold much appeal. But his parents taught him the importance of living the values they taught, by taking in an Iranian Jewish refugee when he was 11. His parents also helped to resettle Russian Jews.
Another formative experience: His parents sent him to live in Deerfield, Illinois, one summer when he was a teenager, to live with his cousins and work at a meat market his grandfather had opened with his brother in what was once a Jewish neighborhood. When Lezak went, it was predominantly African-American.
“I went from my primarily white, Jewish suburb to a place where I hung out with black people for the first time,” he said. “I loved them and they loved me.”
At the University of Colorado Boulder while he majored in marketing, he spent all his spare time with a black-studies professor. His junior year was spent in Copenhagen, where he observed “a social democracy where they take care of their people.”
His interest in Judaism at this point in his life was nonexistent. After college, as Lezak considered applying to law school, a friend of his parents suggested he attend the Brandeis-Bardin Institute’s Brandeis Camp Institute, a Jewish immersion program for young adults. He went because he had nothing better to do.
It was Jewish educator Alvin Mars who recognized that his dedication to social justice and leadership skills were those of a rabbi in the making, at a time when Lezak said he “had no reference point for what that meant. To me a rabbi was the person way up high on the pulpit that I couldn’t relate to.”
Mars proved to be incredibly persuasive; law school was out of the picture, replaced by rabbinical school. Although he’d begun observing Shabbat with his fellow BCI alumni, he showed up at Hebrew Union College feeling deeply insecure about his lack of Jewish knowledge. The first year, which is spent in Jerusalem, was deeply transformative.
“My soul came alive in a new way by learning Hebrew,” he said. He spent time volunteering with the newly arrived Ethiopians. He couldn’t help but notice that the very same racial disparities he had witnessed at home were just as present in the Promised Land.
“I loved living in this cycle of Jewish time, where you have a day that you’re plugged into the way the world should be and are shutting out the rest of the world, and six days a week, you’re out there in the sacred messiness of it all.”
He met Kushner while at HUC; they have three daughters. The Glide-Kitchen partnership could also be considered a byproduct of the Lezak-Kushner marriage.
The longest tenure of Lezak’s career—14 years—was as assistant rabbi at San Rafael’s Congregation Rodef Shalom, in Marin County, which is exactly six miles from San Quentin State Prison. Teaching there, he said, “I had the most intense, profound and meaningful discussions with a group of lifers about life, teshuva, and forgiveness that I’ve ever had.”
While being a congregational rabbi suited him just fine, it was when he was teaching lifers or advocating for undocumented immigrants that Lezak truly felt he was doing God’s work, something he now does on a daily basis at Glide.
“He speaks regularly from the pulpit, and knows how to deliver a message that is understood and felt by all,” said Shimmin.
But that is one small piece.
Everyone on Glide’s staff knew him within weeks of his arrival. “He made it his task to go meet everyone to learn what they’re doing and bring his dreams and excitement to their work,” said Shimmin.
He has participated in workshops for police and district attorneys, training them to be more compassionate to the African-American community.
He plans to grow this mission to Alabama, inviting thought leaders and change-makers to take the journey with Glide staffers and Jews.
“Given his background, it’s a match made in heaven,” Shimmin said.
There has always been a significant Jewish presence at Glide, with Jews attending services regularly and some even serving on its board. Some attend Glide in addition to synagogue; others attend instead of synagogue. Create a “radically inclusive” community in the Bay Area, and it’s inevitable that in this city of seekers and unaffiliated alike, there will be those that couldn’t find their place elsewhere. In the 1970s, another rabbi was affiliated with Glide, but he was retired and did not get a salary.
Jews are among its clients, too.
“At one of my first celebrations, an Israeli woman welcomed me in Hebrew and told me that Glide is her shul,” said Lezak. “She had been a heroin addict for 20 years and the Jews didn’t know what to do with her; Glide healed her and she made teshuva here,” he said. “She comes every week.”
Lezak appreciates how in his two-rabbi family, he can now spend Shabbat and Jewish holidays with them. While he may only deliver the sermon every six to eight weeks, at most Sunday celebrations, he’s in the pews at Glide.
“They point out the rabbi even when I’m not speaking,” he said. “It’s super weird and funky from a Jewish lens, but on another level, this is representative of the Jews and to the Jews and to Glide and the world.”
When the Jewish Funders Network meets in San Francisco later this month, Rapp will take a group to Glide to witness Lezak’s work there; they hope to inspire similar initiatives in other cities.
Proximity is a theme that Lezak returns to repeatedly; a $700 pair of jeans can be bought right down the road from San Quentin; Salesforce and Twitter are both about a mile from Glide. Quoting Bryan Stevenson, Lezak says he wants people to get proximate with those in need, even if, especially if, it makes them uncomfortable.
“There are two Americas in one town,” he said. “We have developing world poverty and marginalization and insane plutocratic wealth. For the most part, we Jews have money and power in this town, and I feel I am here to summon that power and money to moral responsibility.”
Lezak tells so many stories from the past 18 months it’s nearly impossible to take them all in. There is the homeless man who greets him with “shalom aleichem, Rabbi” to the day school student whose repeated encounters with homeless people made her less afraid of them to his getting cursed out by another man, causing him to wonder whether he’s just looked into the eyes of God. Though he’s stepping over human feces and used needles daily to get to his workplace, one thing is clear; he is a man whose passion has landed him his dream job in a place where many of those passing by prefer to avert their eyes.
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Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J., the Jewish News of Northern California, as well as a longtime writer in the Jewish media-verse and regularly contributes to Vows in The New York Times, and Bay Area publications. She is the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals, and is writer/producer of The Lonely Child, a documentary-in-progress.