Central Valley

Minnesota native with a passion for reading becomes new rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom

Rabbi Larry Moldo arrived at Congregation Beth Shalom earlier this month, bringing his wife and son, a love of music and thousands of books, including about 5,000 science-fiction stories he's collected over the years.

"Books are an important part of a rabbi's life and always have been an important part of my life," said the Minneapolis native. "Reading was about all I did (as a child). My creativity is in the area of literature and music and dance."

As a teen, he joined the Labor Zionist Youth Movement, where he was introduced to Israeli folk dancing. He played the clarinet in elementary school, added the bassoon in junior high and taught himself how to play the guitar in high school.

"I enjoy music. I wouldn't call myself an accomplished musician," he said. "Since I got into the work force, I haven't had as much time to devote to music stuff."

But he did visit Modesto when the congregation was sponsoring one of its musical Sunday Afternoons at CBS programs. He said he enjoyed it.

"The concert series is a very good thing, and they do it well," he said.

Moldo met his wife, Andrea, in Omaha, Neb., where he was working as a youth director. The two were married in 1991 and have a 14-year-old son, Samuel, who attends the American Hebrew Academy in North Carolina.

Moldo replaces Rabbi Art Gould, who was at CBS for less than a year. Before that, the congregation was without a rabbi for nearly two years following the resignation of Rabbi Paul Gordon, who had served CBS for slightly more than six years. Gordon succeeded Rabbi Leah Sudran, who quit after less than two years because of a conflict with the congregation. She replaced Rabbi Michael Alony, who served for less than a month in 1996.

But the rabbi tenure was stable before that. Rabbi Gary Ellison served for nearly 10 years before Alony was hired, and Rabbi Samuel Graudenz, a Holocaust survivor, led the synagogue for more than two decades before he retired. He died in 2006.

Moldo isn't concerned about some of the past rabbis' short track records.

"Hopefully, I'll be different because I'll be here and remain here," he said. "My

particular vision for the congregation, part of which they're already involved in doing, is a community that is actively learning, doing, caring and praying. As long as we're doing that, it should all work out."

Part of the past problems, say various congregation members, is that as the only Jewish synagogue in Stanislaus County, the congregation of 140 families is very diverse, encompassing everything from conservative Orthodox views to the more liberal Reform Judaism movement.

Moldo received his seminary education from the Academy for Jewish Religion, which is not affiliated with any movement. As a seminary student, he served as the only Jewish clergy in Elmwood Park, N.J. He most recently served as an assistant rabbi at Temple Beth El of Greater Buffalo, N.Y.

He said he was attracted to CBS in part because "the people are friendly and caring and concerned."

And he is open, after he gets settled and has time, to establishing interfaith dialogues with other religious leaders in town.

"I'm a member of a group called Colleagues in Dialogue that's sponsored by the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.," he said. "Besides learning what other people's hot buttons are, it helps us develop patience to not overreact when things seem to happen for one reason or another."

He also had a taste of interfaith work in New Jersey.

"It was a small town and had one small Catholic church, a Protestant church and a synagogue," Moldo said. "At every civic event, a representative from each one would get up and say a prayer of some kind -- the invocation, benediction or a word in the middle. Each of us got to know each other by sight."

Over the years, Congregation Beth Shalom has been hit by vandalism; the most recent in March included graffiti of hate-filled messages scrawled on the synagogue by two as-yet-unidentified young men. Judaism through the centuries and across countries has been marked with persecution and ignorance by non-Jews. What does Moldo want the Modesto community to know about his faith?

"One of the important things is that there is a purpose that we're put on this Earth to accomplish, and that's to make the world a better place as partners with God," he said. "However one does that is perfectly fine. A lot of people have found the Jewish way of doing that to be close to them, but we don't assume everybody else has to do it that way.

"Judaism is very complicated, and there are lots of opinions about just about anything because it's an old religion. There's rarely 100 percent agreement on almost anything. But there's

100 percent agreement that life has value. There's

100 percent agreement that it's not good to hurt anyone."

CBS members are pleased with their new rabbi.

"He's a very kind, bright and caring person," said Joyce Gandelman, president of CBS. "He's got a really good sense of humor and a tremendous sense of Judaism. He reads Torah just naturally, wonderfully."

What about past conflicts with other rabbis?

"Rabbi Moldo's got a psychology background and likes solving puzzles," she said. "I think that he has such a nice, easy sense about him that he'll be able to help us through the internal struggles that we'll always have. People are very happy about him."

Andra Greenfield, another active member and chairwoman of a previous rabbi search committee, agreed. "One of the things I liked when I first met him is he seems easygoing. He's very kind," she said. "His selling point to me is that he has a very balanced perspective. When I ask him questions, he thinks for a moment. He thinks about the different sides of the question and comes out with an answer that seems very palatable and balanced. I like that about him."

Greenfield, who coincidentally was recently ordained as a rabbi herself, said Moldo also is very intelligent and has a nice voice, "so it makes the services nice to hear. I think there are a lot of positives."

Todd Aaronson, CBS' religious school director, said the new rabbi also "relates to kids incredibly well. He knows how to ask the right questions to get them to talk, which is really nice to see.

"I am very excited to have him on board."

Congregation Beth ShalomAddress: 1705 Sherwood Ave., ModestoContact: 571-6060, www.cbsmodesto.orgServices: Fridays at 7:30 p.m. followed by Oneg Shabbat (Family services the first Friday of each month); Saturday services 9:30 a.m. followed by Kiddush

Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or snowicki@modbee.com.