Rabbis of LA | Rabbi Steve Leder Is ‘Free-Falling’ and Loving it

Last May, When Steve Leder announced he would be stepping away from his full-time role as Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s (WBT) senior rabbi, he was a nationally recognized religious leader. Knowing when to go is just one reason why.  Starting Sept. 1, he will assume a part-time role for the next two years. Then he becomes rabbi emeritus.

“I never will walk out of this place for the last time until I am dead,” Leder said. He walked into the temple 37 years ago, joining WBT’s long-serving tradition of Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin and Rabbi Harvey Fields. He spoke in soft, low tones at the Resnick Family Campus, newest addition to the ever-expanding Wilshire Boulevard Temple community, which dates to the 19th century. But a month after he turned 64, Rabbi Leder explained the reason for his announcement. “I was feeling burnt out. I knew it was time to loosen my grip.”

The rabbi’s latest contract had two one-year options. He chose not to exercise them because “I have been feeling burnt out for a few years.” The signs, he said, were impossible to ignore: “Less patience for process meetings, memos, PR budgeting, Human Resources – less patience for the non-rabbinic responsibilities of a senior rabbi. And the exhaustion of fundraising, which I will continue to do.”

Rabbi Leder’s candor was striking; he had no time for second thoughts or regrets. “One can only carry so many and so much for so long. If I am going to have a second chapter, which I want — I am 64 years old. If I wait much longer, I won’t.” No time for second thoughts or regrets. If he was to stay, full-time, given the workload of the senior rabbi, “I would be doing it, really, for the money,” he said. “This never is a job one should do for the money.”

“One can only carry so many and so much for so long. If I am going to have a second chapter, which I want to have — I am 64 years old. If I wait much longer, I won’t.”

He underlined why now is the time: “I want to go out when people wish I wouldn’t rather than when people wish I would.”

Rabbi Leder said his three-months-on, three-months-off schedule for the next two years “will give the congregation a new senior rabbi with the energy that is required.” It also will enable him to assist the new rabbi. “It will allow me to continue to raise money to support the congregation and our mission.” An irresistible bonus in this design “will give me the time I need, and want, to refuel and re-pot myself.” 

A smile of contentment lit up Rabbi Leder’s face. “Honestly, I don’t know yet what I am going to be doing after Aug. 31,” he said. This is the first time he can recall not having a clear next step. First, he worried. Then came lightning. “I am experiencing the liberation that comes with what I am going to do,” he said. “I am essentially letting go of one trapeze without the other being in sight. I am able to do that, simply out of faith that somehow I won’t tumble from the sky. 

“That is where I am. It is quite liberating and new.”

Candidly, he said, “some fear” lingers. He grew up “with an extraordinary and deeply embedded fear of poverty. That was my childhood. That was my parents’ childhood. A real fear, but one I can — and should — overcome. “Fear of poverty never is a reason to be a leader of the Jewish people,” Rabbi Leder said.  “You shouldn’t make the Torah a spade.”

What will he do? For the past year, he has been talking with “really smart people about what might be next. I am platform-agnostic. I don’t care if it’s a book, TV, a podcast or a newspaper or teaching. I just want to move people, help people and further the Jewish people in a way that is more sustainable for me.”

The rabbi doesn’t worry about running out of motivational gas. “If I do, it’s because I am doing something I don’t care enough about,” he said.

Next could be a book or a scripted television series he is helping to develop. If it’s a book, the subject could be the art of letting go. He said too many people are “routinized.” We need to let go and trust, he said. “We need to live,” Rabbi Leder repeated. “It’s hard for many.”

He spoke of standing at the door of the Resnick Family Campus Nursery School. “I watch these little children clinging to their parents’ legs. I see the tears, the runny noses, the red cheeks. And that’s just the parents by the way! Hard to let go.”

The seed for Leder’s letting go was when Leder and his wife invited a single parent over for dinner. “We were talking about the difficulties of being a single parent,” said the rabbi. “Without any self-pity or drama, my wife Betsy matter-of-factly said ‘Well, I was a single parent.’ That cut me very deeply. In many aspects, it was true.” 

His daily workload is challenging, especially because of his mindset. “To be the senior rabbi of a 3,000-family congregation with three campuses and camps, with eight schools, with two social services centers and, I don’t know, 10, 12,000 people,” and then he was out of numbers. He knew early on “there are no half measures, I am not a half-measures person. To achieve and perform at that level, something has to give. 

“I have worked 48 weekends a year for 37 years. I’m not whining about it. It was my choice. I have felt, and do feel, called. At a certain point, though, enough has to be enough.”

No complaints. Just time for change.

“I feel great,” said Rabbi Leder. “I am liberated. I am free-falling.”

Fast Takes with Rabbi Leder

Jewish Journal: What do you do in your spare time?

Rabbi Leder: I would like to convert 6 million people to Judaism to replace the Jews lost in the Holocaust. America is the only place you could do it. Also, I want to pay Jews to have a third child so we start increasing our birthrate. We need to go from birthright to birth rate. The math is not good for us in America.

JJ: Your favorite spare time activity?

RL: I love to freshwater fish, to flyfish in trout streams. I grew up in Minnesota. I fished with my Dad. I only fish catch-and-release. Second, I love the desert. I love being in the solitude and quiet of the Mojave Desert. I finished two of my books there.

JJ: What has been your proudest moment?

RL: It always has been, and continues to be, watching our two children (son and daughter) laugh and enjoy each other’s company.

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