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A man of the Torah: Rabbi Theodore Tsuruoka of Great Neck

Rabbi Theodore Tsuruoka in front of Temple Isaiah

Rabbi Theodore Tsuruoka in front of Temple Isaiah in Great Neck, before the start of a Passover seder, April 4, 2015; the reform congregation has a membership of about 85 families. Credit: Daniel Brennan

At Temple Isaiah of Great Neck, members of the Reform synagogue practice their Jewish faith with an occasional side of wasabi and pickled ginger.

That's not a punchline. Japanese cooking demonstrations are an informal but enjoyable part of Rabbi Theodore Tsuruoka's activities as the temple's spiritual leader.

Tsuruoka, 68, a second-generation Japanese-American, grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and was an adult convert to Judaism. He had his bar mitzvah at age 50, became the spiritual leader of Temple Isaiah in 2000 and was ordained a rabbi in 2004.

"I have made sukiyaki dinners at the temple on a number of occasions for 12 or more," says Tsuruoka (sir-rO'-ka). He always makes sure that Jewish law is followed -- "all ingredients are kosher quality," he says -- while his mother, Haruno Tsuruoka, 91, supervises the Japanese details.

Sabbath and sushi

When not officiating at weddings or Sabbath services, Tsuruoka also teaches classes on how to prepare vegetarian sushi rolls. He makes the preparation authentically Jewish by wrapping the rice and seaweed around vegetables, adding a serving of scripture. As he prepares the sushi rolls, Tsuruoka says, "I allude to the carrots, cucumbers and gourds as being mentioned in one of the books of the Torah." He adds, "What that does for me is it demonstrates how I see the world through Jewish eyes now, everything is related to Torah."

Long Island's Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jewish congregations have their own revered spiritual leaders. but it's extremely rare for a rabbi to travel such a nontraditional route to the clergy.

"I think it's incredibly unusual," says Rabbi Michael Stanger, president of the Long Island Board of Rabbis. "How often do you hear about someone coming from such a divergent background and not only making a point of converting to Judaism but actually becoming a leader of the Jewish community?" Adds Stanger, who is the rabbi at Old Westbury Hebrew Congregation: "That takes extreme faith and extreme commitment."

Tsuruoka's parents met at a dance in a World War II internment camp in Poston, Arizona, where his grandparents, who were born in Japan, were also confined. The family moved in 1945 to Manhattan's Upper West Side, where Tsuruoka was born the following year and was raised as a Methodist amid a large Jewish community. He decided to learn more about Judaism after a probing conversation with the pastor at Manhattan's Riverside Church and crossed the street to the Jewish Theological Seminary.

By age 19, when he met his future wife, Linda, who was born Jewish, Tsuruoka was already on his way to his formal conversion at age 22. The couple has been married for 47 years and have a son, Jeffrey, 44, and daughter, Amy, 41; and grandchildren, Sarah, 16, and Noah, 10.

Building a synagogue

In the past decade, Tsuruoka has worked with his small congregation to move from the Christian church where it held services for years, to its own synagogue on the site of a former Chinese restaurant. It took Tsuruoka and Temple Isaiah members nine years to raise the $2 million to buy the land, raze the restaurant and construct a one-story synagogue with a skylight over the sanctuary, says June Feldman of Great Neck, the project's chief fundraiser.

The money came from temple members, three of whom gave $100,000 gifts, and Tsuruoka helped Feldman through the lengthy process, she says. "He always believed that we were going to be able to complete this task." And under his leadership, the congregation has held steady its current membership of about 85 families.

At a seder on April 4, the second night of Passover, Tsuruoka demonstrated some of the qualities that have endeared him to his flock. Tsuruoka sat at the head of a table spread with the makings of a traditional Passover celebration, less eclectic than at his sushi classes. Plastic plates overflowed with matzo, the traditional unleavened bread, and plastic goblets were filled with wine. During the three-hour seder, the 51 guests helped themselves to chicken, brisket, potatoes and mixed vegetables catered from the Great Neck Diner. But there was a glitch -- only one plate containing bitter herbs, parsley and other greens had been set out among the 10 tables instead of one for each table.

Tsuruoka was unruffled. "By rabbinical supervision. We can do this," he explained to the crowd. "Flexibility is very Jewish." So, one plate of greens would suffice for the seder, which retells the story of the many miracles that helped deliver the Jewish people from slavery in the Pharoah's Egypt.

Congregants of the temple founded in 1967 have faith in Tsuruoka's standards. The only thing nontraditional about their rabbi, they say, is his biography. "He's actually very traditional in his Jewish observance," says Helman Brook, 74, of Great Neck, a retired lawyer and a member of the congregation for 30 years. "He does not get into a great deal of politics or contemporary commentary. His sermons are really based upon the Torah, its lessons and its application to making the world a better place."

Tsuruoka's "can-do" spirit impressed members of the congregation from the moment they met him. That first meeting still draws chuckles from people on the search committee.

"The rabbinical search committee was waiting outside of the building when an Asian man approached them," Brook recalls. "They believed he was a member of the church where we had services," which had a Korean congregation. "Then they noticed that he was wearing his yarmulke," the skullcap worn by observant Jewish men.

"We didn't dream that our rabbi would be Japanese-American," says Kathie Davis, 72, a semiretired Great Neck travel agent and current temple co-president who served on the search committee.

"We all had a good laugh and rolled up our sleeves," says Davis. "We liked him immediately." Though he was only a rabbinical student at the time, he was hired.

His path to the rabbinate

Tsuruoka's academic studies were concentrated in the sciences, but the rabbi is reluctant to talk about the undergraduate and advance degrees he's earned, saying he feels strongly that his 10 years of Talmud studies leading to his ordination are more relevant to who he is now.

A graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, Tsuruoka earned a bachelor of arts degree in sociology and a bachelor of science in math from City College in Manhattan; a masters in population research and a doctorate in math from Georgetown University. He worked in his family's custom framing business and as the chief financial officer for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in Manhattan before being hired at Temple Isaiah.

"Having aligned myself in the sciences" when he was younger, the rabbi says, "I found that my real calling was in spirituality and humanity."

Tsuruoka still observes a few Japanese traditions, mainly when he visits his mother in Westchester County. He and his family celebrate each New Year's Day with traditional Japanese foods.

One of Tsuruoka's greatest joys is introducing others to his adopted faith. The rabbi is currently offering lessons in Judaism to Stephane Lee, 53, of Great Neck Estates, a Manhattan antiques dealer whose marriage to Alan Lichtenstein, who is Jewish, has prompted her to convert. (Lee uses her birth surname according to Korean tradition.) Their daughter, Allisen, 18, is also taking lessons with Tsuruoka.

Lee says Tsuruoka has been a good teacher because he understands issues of both having an Asian background and converting to Judaism later in life. "He's helping us a lot," she says.

Tsuruoka says, "I've learned that every person has something special about them, and that it really is my job, to a degree, to try to help that person discover what makes them unique, and, of course, in my line of business, what spiritually motivates them."

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