Rabbi Steve Leder

Steven Leder

senior rabbi / wilshire boulevard temple | writer

STEVE LEDER is the Senior Rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles and the author of such critically acclaimed books as The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things and More Money Than God: Living a Rich Life without Losing Your Soul., and his latest book More Beautiful than Before: How Suffering Transforms Us will be available on November 7, 2017. He is a graduate of Northwestern University; studied at Trinity College and Oxford; and was ordained at Hebrew Union College. The winner of numerous awards for his interdenominational and cross-cultural dialogue, Leder has been a guest on CBS, ABC, NPR, PBS and featured in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times among other places. He lives with his family in Los Angeles.


Drew Kugler: Good morning and thank you for taking some time to talk to me today. I've known Rabbi Leder for, going on, I figure twenty years. And have come to the realization, as I've told other people, that he has what I think to be the most demanding and unique job as a leader of all the clients I deal with. Now why is that? In brief, that's because knowing him a bit and knowing some of the other clergy here Wilshire Boulevard Temple, where we sit, that their day is chock full of a whole variety of activities from sitting and having a conversation, to having to go to a hospital, then to a cemetery, then to a home, and it is an ongoing adventure of taking care of people, more than almost any other client I know. And I am always in admiration for that, and that brings us to our conversation. When the other guests have sat for this time, the first thing a bit of a tradition I've started is talking to them about what they wanted to be as kids when they grew up. Do you have any recollection before you wanted to be a rabbi of what you wanted to do?

Rabbi Steven Leder: Yeah. 

DK: So he's laughing already, so we're off to a good start.

SL: I have a very, very vivid memory of this. I had two fantasies as a child of what I wanted to be when I grew up. The first was, I think fairly common, which is of course you know, I wanted to play professional baseball. Never mind I lack the talent or physicality required you know to want to yeah I would with all of those things in the way so clearly you know I wanted to I grew up during the great era of the Minnesota Twins in Minnesota. But the other thing that's so vivid, that still makes me smile to this day, is that I grew up on a creek called the Minnehaha Creek. It literally ran through my backyard. It wasn't very large, but that was my playground as a kid. I'm one of five kids—parents had five kids before they were thirty. Dad worked pretty much all the time. Mom could kind of barely hold it together with five kids and no help. And I totally have to say and unsupportive husband in that regard. So we were kind of left on our own, and for me and for the other kids in this beautiful, crazy little enclave called St Louis Park, where Al Franken and the Coen Brothers and Tom Friedman and so many others come from, we—the creek was our playground, the creek was my life. I was skating on it in the winter and canoeing on it and fishing in it, catching frogs and turtles in the summer. So my fantasy was—I wanted to be a professional fisherman or fishing guide, because every time I would catch a decent Stringer full of fish out of the creek, I just felt like the king of the world. And I would ride my bike home with my fish, and you know my mom would cook them for me, and to me that was just heaven on earth. And then to this day, I'm rarely happier than when I'm standing knee deep in a trout stream somewhere. So you know I think it's at some level we're all trying to get back to where we were when we were happiest as children. And I know the guys who ride bikes as adults—you ask them when they were happy and free as a child, and they'll say it was riding their bike. So for me, I was happy and free as a child on the Minnehaha Creek.

DK: And then at some point—I've heard versions of the story, and sermons you've given or at least in conversations, at some point you were you were called—you were—your decision became clear.

SL: Yes.

DK: So walk us through a bit—the story when the Rabbinate was your choice.

SL: I think there were two pivotal moments. The first was my bar mitzvah.

DK: Why?

SL: Well, I didn't have to learn much to have a Bar Mitzvah. Temple is no Minneapolis, but every kid was given the opportunity to write some kind of a speech. And now, we weren't given a lot of direction, and I think it was in a cursory way supposed to be about the section of the Torah the Bible that we chanted from. But in my case, I loved to write, always did, always had an ability with words. So for my Bar Mitzvah speech, I created an anthology of my poetry and I stood up there at thirteen years old and inflicted my poetry on my family and friends and I loved every minute of it. I loved being up there, communicating with words, and I still do. It's a very gratifying experience. The creation of the piece—the writing of it is you know torturous sometimes—but the delivering of it and the moving of others with words is still a very powerful experience for me, and a satisfying one. So that was the first. Then I kind of went into junior high school. And I was always pretty good in school but I was bored, and again I was the fourth of five kids, so not a lot of attention paid to me at home. And I kind of started going down the wrong path. I was playing drums in a rock 'n roll band with a bunch of guys—by the way remain professional musicians to this day. And I was fourteen and I got arrested for shoplifting Bob Dylan albums at Target. Now in retrospect, a fairly honorable crime, being the Dylan fan that I am.

DK: Yes, that's right. I throw it, right.

SL: But, my parents that got their attention that maybe Steve was heading down the wrong path. They went to a rabbi, who said to them, you know the thing you need to do is change Steve's peer group. You should send him to this Jewish camp in Wisconsin in a condom walk Wisconsin. and they did. And from the moment I stepped off the bus at the camp, I was in love. I was in love with everything about it. The music. The counselors. It was the first time my life I ever saw a rabbi in shorts and a T-shirt who could throw a baseball. You know, because my rabbis were so Germanic and proper and old and scary —and here are these normal guys who are rabbis. I loved, I loved the you know—we slept in these big like people it's like army tents and grew our own food in the garden and we wrote our own services, and everybody—it was cool to be Jewish. I got a lot of attention for doing the right thing, instead of the wrong thing. And to be honest, I don't think I ever looked back from that day forward. I flirted with going into politics for a while. I worked on a big congressional campaign when I was in college with a bunch of guys who went on to run the Clinton White House, and you know I flirted with it. But I always came back to Jews and Judaism. And really that was just a pivotal summer in my life. I was fifteen. It was the right time for a kid to be influenced, and thank goodness I was influenced by that environment.

DK: Yeah, so you've been at it a few years.

SL: Thirty.

DK: Thirty. Remember when you just said a few minutes ago about, you know, guys like riding their bikes now because of what it was like when they were kids.

SL: Yeah.

DK: Do you love being a rabbi for the same reasons now, then you have for when you loved it then? Or what's changed?

SL: Maybe fifteen percent of the time.

DK: Fifteen.

SL: Yeah. To be honest.

DK: Not a lot.

SL: It's not a lot. But I'm not sure it's unusual in any profession that you have to do seventy-five, eighty eighty-five percent of the things you don't like, in order to be able to do twenty or fifteen percent of things you do like. You know there's an 80/20 rule in life, and that applies to the rabbinate as well, or at least as ambitious a rabbinate as I have constructed here. So as much as being a rabbi for me was about the prayer and the poetry in the writing in the teaching and the human connections, I nevertheless spend a tremendous amount of my time in meetings and reviewing memos and dealing with marketing and H.R. problems and finance issues and, you know, facilities issues. So you know and running a big, you know, 30,000,000 dollar a year, 450 employee, you know, medium-sized business, with three campuses, and all of the kind of frankly bizarre expectations that people bring to you when you're a walking symbol of some kind. So, there's still enough in it that I love to keep me going— by the way the books and the writing are a big part of that—

DK: Yeah.

SL: I feel that in their own way, they're more eternal and transcendent and therefore important, than the day to day operation of an institution, or even frankly the brick and mortar projects, substantial brick and mortar projects, that we've been able to accomplish in Los Angeles. So, the answer is, honestly, sometimes I feel that, you know. Also, you know, we all age, and our interests change and evolve. One of the great things about the rabbinate for me is that I've been able to have several different jobs within the same institution, and I've been able to focus on different aspects of things, at different stages in my life when I am more or less interested in certain things. I was the youth rabbi here when I started. I was in charge of bringing in people in their twenty's and thirty's, and keeping the teenagers involved, and I was good at and I loved it. At a certain point, I got too old to do that. And then I started focusing more on programming for adults and cultural things, and the writing and the preaching and the teaching. And then when I realized that there was a tremendous need to rebuild one of our campuses, a guy, myself who had no interest in fundraising or money for most of his career after twenty years realized I need to become an expert in fundraising, and I went out hard. Really hard. And we were successful enough to accomplish our goal. So in a way that's kind of a blessing...

DK: Yeah.

SL: ...that it's a career, first of all, where age is an asset and not a liability, which is very unusual. As you get older, you in a sense become more people's preconceived notion of what a rabbi is, rather than less, which is you know pretty unusual in any other business that I can think of. So you know I'm very lucky in that way. And I'm a person who likes to do a lot of different things. I get bored pretty easily, so the fact that the rabbinate for me involves shifting gears all day long, for me, is a positive; although there are rare occasions on which you just—your head's going to—you feel like your head's going to explode. You know, you go from a funeral to a wedding to a board meeting to you know somebody whose marriage or business has just fallen apart. You know it can it can definitely boggle your mind.

DK: Yeah. But it also keeps things pretty interesting.

DK: Well, speaking of interesting, you have—when this podcast comes out right around the release of your third book [More Beautiful Than Before: How Suffering Transforms Us]

SL: Correct.

DK: I did have a chance to to read through it and it strikes me, to say the least, as your most personal book and prolific in how much insight people get to you, and what you're like, and what you've been through, and how that helps others compared to the other other two books the that I've read as well. So why the book? That's what I've got written on my notes to ask you, because you had a prerogative, you had some time that you referred to, that you went off to Italy to work on this. Why this one, now?

SL: I think it's hard for any artist to really understand from whence the art comes. You know Wordsworth said it was Wordsworth who said about literary critics, "They murder to dissect.  They murder to dissect." That the minute you start to analyze a piece of art you kill it. You know you have to, in order to dissect something, it's definitionally dead. So the short answer is, I don't know. I do know this, however. When I experienced intense, intense physical pain, sustained for months, for the first time in my life, at an age where I was waking up to my mortality and vulnerability anyway, it caused me to question how I had lived the first half of my life, versus how I wanted to live the second half of my life. It cleared away a lot of underbrush in my life, Including people. It unleashed a degree of bitterness that was within me that I didn't even recognize, and of course unleashing that is the first step to actually understanding and making peace with it. Because the sacrifices to live the kind of life I've lived, which is mostly a one way street a life of giving to others—can create, you know extraordinary exhaustion and demands. And it's untoward to talk about because I'm supposed to be in an entirely selfless calling. And the journey of trying to understand my own feelings revealed to me how superficially I had been reading and responding to the feelings of those who had come to me for help over the first twenty-seven years of my career. Look, I don't think I was useless to people. I'm not an idiot. I know some things about the human condition because I've studied a tradition my whole life that is about the human condition, so I'm not saying that my approach was without worth or value. What I am saying is that it was superficial based on what I myself had not learned about pain and reconciliation. And so that encouraged me to put together a book that was more honest and deeper. I still pull some punches in the book. I mean there's a lot of things about what it means to have been me that I do not discuss in the book. But I do agree with you that I open up more than I ever have before. Blake said within a drop you can see the ocean. So the whole premise of the book is that through that opening and through the opening up of other people's lives and pain, people will see their own. That this is not really a book about me, or a book about the painful situations I have helped others endure and learn from. That ultimately the reader will feel that this is actually a book about "me." And they'll be able to find themselves within the book and they will be able to find the book within themselves. That's my hope. That's really my hope. And so far I have to say, I've only trusted maybe a dozen or so people to read it, and they're not people who need to sugarcoat anything for me, and they've been very deeply moved by it.

Because although I admit I pull a few punches, I also really told the truth, and also revealed the truth of others. Obviously I changed a lot of names and circumstances to avoid embarrassing—and I want to have the permission of every person in that book—to tell these stories. And finally, you know I end the book with an observation, which is that every—they say—every preacher has one sermon that he gives one hundred different ways. And I realized after my own experience with pain that almost every sermon I've ever given is about finding something meaningful to spur, within and despite, our pain. And that while never worth the price of pain, of our pain, neither is pain worthless. You know I say in the introduction to the book everyone goes through hell. The point is not to come out empty handed. You know the point is to use your suffering. Dostoyevsky said his greatest fear was that his life would not be worthy of his suffering. So the book is an attempt to have encouraged people to live lives that are worthy of their suffering. You didn't have a choice about the price you had to pay for your human suffering, the degree of your suffering, the nature of your suffering; but you do have choices about how that suffering or whether or not that suffering informs your life going forward, and makes your life, as the title says, more beautiful than before. You know sometimes we're more whole when we're missing a piece because we have greater depth and greater sensitivity. And none of it's worth it, Drew; none of it's worth it. I remember my friend Paul Miller—was an amazing, amazing guy. He was the driving force behind the Americans for Disabilities Act in the Clinton administration felt amazing guy. Had cancer three times. And the third time when it was obvious he wasn't going to beat it, he looked up at me from his hospital bed and he said, "This much character." I don't need, and so I'm not for a moment glorifying suffering or pretending that the ways in which it informs the rest of our lives is even worth it. But we don't get to choose that part, whether or not we suffer. And I can tell you just from my own perspective I am a healthier, better, kinder, gentler person as a result of my own suffering. And although I didn't wish for it at the time, I'm actually grateful for what I went through.

DK: Was it the book, or the—how did you ultimately reap the benefit of the suffering? Because obviously by the book, I'm hunchin' and there are lots of people who don't. There are lots of people who don't step back and gain perspective, which is what the book's about...somehow learning and benefitting. Well, why did you get it and other people—what allowed you to get it..

LS: Well I think I'm still trying to get it. I think it's a process. I think pain—look success doesn't really change anything. All success does is encourage people to say the same. You know this is working pretty well now. The only thing that really, really causes—and I would say sometimes forces people to change—is pain real pain and everyone has a different threshold for pain. I, for example, could tolerate an extraordinary amount of physical and emotional pain. A lot that has to do with my childhood and what I endured as a kid and all kinds of things. So there are a few things, to answer your question. One is some people don't get it because they have an incredibly high threshold for pain and they never hit bottom it never gets bad enough. To force them to change, some people are so narcissistic that they don't even recognize the pain as a result of their own failure of any, in any way. Which some pain is, so you know, not all, we don't want to blame the victim here. Sometimes people are victimized, often. Why did I get it? I think because it was such a shock to me. I think because, I've a remarkable wife, and kids, and a few friends who really got it right. I think because I got great help, you know, from a great psychiatrist. And I think it's because I've always tried to embrace truth and this was a new realm of truth. That I felt compelled to embrace and understand and make my own. And then you know you started by asking what I wanted to be when I grew up. There was one other memory that I did not share with you. I know when it was I was in fourth grade. And there was a clearly emotionally troubled young girl in the class with us. I'll make up a name. Her name was Julie, OK? It wasn't, but let's make up a name. And she acted out in class and she was you know clearly troubled. And I remember in fourth grade wanting to go to the teacher and saying to the teacher, you know, would you just let me sit down and talk with her for a while? I think I can help her. I had that instinct in fourth grade. Miss Hollingsworth—teacher's name. Now I never did it, but I fantasized about it and so...

Why the book? Why did I get it? Deep in my D.N.A. somewhere is a helping gene, a listening gene. A rescuing gene. And I felt with my newfound insights about pain that I could be better at helping people. And then the book really is an attempt to do that outside the boundaries of my own community of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, which is a community of roughly 10,000 people. But there are three hundred some million people in the world and they're all in pain, in the country, and they're all in pain. So there is really no other way, other than a book, or maybe T.V. I don't know to fulfill that mission in my D.N.A., to use the wisdom of our tradition, and other traditions, to help people make something of their pain. That's why the book.

DK: So one of the chapters...and I've heard you talk about it...and then read the chapter on essentially on words, you know the power of words in the chapter called Abracadabra—and very thought-provoking to say the least, especially given what I do. The show itself, that you're on, is designed to help people understand how conversations are turning point, common turning points of our lives. And people like you and some of our other guests are obviously sharing the power of that. So let's take on how you help people. This notion of what's in your D.N.A. And I'm curious what you see from your seat as people come to you for help. What do you see them do that gets in the way, where they really do, is you know getting in their own way, when it comes to communicating. Help the listener on that one.

SL: I've learned over thirty years as a rabbi, and frankly you know fifty-seven years as a as a man, that the most important things in life are said with very few words. It's a boy. I do. Yes. No. It's a deal. So the first mistake I think people make is they say too much, that they're not able to distill down to the essence of what the other needs to hear, wants to hear, or what even they themselves need or want to say. You know the Torah, which of course is my roadmap into the human condition, was a book written to be heard. We call it an oral tradition even though it's written down. People didn't have photocopy machines right, so things had to be terse, clear. The Torah's made a very short stubby sentences—very few multi-syllabic words—and I think there's a lot to learn from that. So the first thing is I think people just use too many words. And it enables them to avoid getting to the point whatever the point is. The second thing I would say is that people, no matter how many or few words they use, they are formulating their response rather than listening to what's being said. I have a habit / intention. That when people come to speak with me, I deliberately listen with my hand across my lips. I do that partly because it's natural to me, but I also do it so I keep my mouth shut, and listen. And I also—I don't know you would know better than I—but I think it's also a visible signal to the other person. The rabbi is listening to me, he's not talking he's listening. People want to be listened to and heard so that's a part of it. Because otherwise you're kind of a little attorney in your own mind, preparing to respond or rebut. And that's not really a conversation, that's a court case. You have no idea how many married couples in my office over the years I've allowed to kind of spin out of control in front of me and then stop them and say look at you you're too little attorneys. You want to spend your life in court? So that's the next thing. And then it's again back to the first thing of saying the most important things with the fewest words. It's having the courage to say those most important things. There is no more difficult sentence possible, I think, for most human beings than three simple words. “I was wrong. I was wrong.” By the way, it's much more powerful than “I'm sorry” because it's a much higher degree of responsibility and culpability. “I was wrong” changes everything—takes the sting out. So hard to say for most people.

DK: Yeah.

SL: But it can change everything. You know there's a piece in the book called “hurt and run”. And in it I juxtapose two family stories within my congregation. Both had loved ones killed as pedestrians by drivers. And in one case, it was a hit and run, and in the other the woman stopped and did everything she could to make it right, short of obviously resurrecting this poor man. And then after the criminal and civil cases were concluded, she was allowed to speak to the victim's family. And the victim's family called me and said, “This woman reached out to speak to us. Do I have to speak to her? Do we have to see her?” And I said, “You do.” Again, a short sentence. “You do.” And then they said to me, “Will you be there with us?” And I said, “I will.” And then we met separately, first to prepare them, and then the meeting took place in my office. The moment that driver, who had killed this woman's husband, looked her in the eye and said, “I was wrong”, it changed everything in the room. By the end of that conversation, all of us, myself included were weeping and holding each other, and the victim's wife was holding the perpetrator's face in the palms of her hands, and looked her in the eyes and kissed her, and said “God bless you.’ All because of the right few simple words.

DK: So, in the book you refer more than once—you talk about your couch of tears—and that's exactly where that moment happened that you just described. And in my work, I stress in this idea of constructive candor, of having the right kind of difficult conversation. I talk about the preparation phase, and I say that it happens before you enter the room. As people prepare to sit on your couch of tears, and you know they're sitting out here in the reception area, how do you prepare for that moment?

SL: Well, in some ways much less than you think. Because sometimes I'm finishing, literally finishing, a meeting ten seconds before, you know, and it could be a meeting that is completely disparate from having an intake meeting with a family of mourners to prepare for a funeral. it could be a marketing meaning it could be a budget meeting. It could be about an employee we need to fire I don't know so you know. I sometimes don't have any time to prepare. I just open the door. And I'm myself and I want to make I think important point about that. I think what people need, and want, while of course being appropriate with them and tuning into their frequency; they really don't need me to be anything other than who I am with them. If they're family with which I have a long and loving and humorous relationship, I might walk out give them a big hug and say and make some kind of joke, because that's who we are together. If it's a family I don't know at all, I may come out and say, “I'm so sorry you have to go through this. I wish I knew more, but I promise you by the end of this conversation, I'm going to know a lot and we're going to be OK together.” But I try to be who I am. A friend of mine a rabbi in Boston, whose son, adult son, committed suicide, said to me once that he found it unpleasant when people approached him, not only during, but after the mourning process, the first few days, with these long drawn faces. He just wanted them to be who they were with him. He didn't need them to be sad. Obviously to be appropriate, yes. Or people would say things to him like, "I can't imagine what you're going through." And that offended him because every parent imagines their child dying, what do mean you can't imagine it? And you can imagine it; you don't have to pretend, you know, to say that. So I think the more I myself, the more people are helped by the process I'm going to put in place to structure their grief and their chaos. And by the wisdom of an ancient tradition that I'm going to bring with me to help structure and honor their grief and their love and their pain. But I'm not a dour, you know, depressed guy when I walk into a hospital room or when I walk go out to greet a grieving family. I am who I am. You know—you've been through this with me. I'm sure I gave you a hug and we cracked a couple of jokes and then sat down and started talking. And I think that's sort of people need to know that this is not the end of the world, this is sad, terribly sad, but life will reassert itself. We are going to get through this, and you can get on my back and I'm going to carry you.

So now I think that the question you didn't ask, but is implied, is well “How do you Steve handle carrying so many other people's problems and grief—often total strangers you don't even know?” And that you have to show up like their closest relative for a while. How do you gladly shoulder that, and then what do you do afterwards, right? How do you get out from underneath the cloud? I shoulder it because I have a very old fashioned idea about work in general. Which is like: you put on the steel-toe boots, you put on the gloves. And you dig. Do your job. Work hard. Do your job. This is your job. Go help these people, whether you feel like it or not, whether you know them or not. You treat them the way you'd want to be treated. And you know. I grew up as you read in the book—it's pretty clear my father violated every child labor law in the books by the time I was five. You know I grew up at five years old scrubbing floors and toilets. Now being rabbis and scrubbing floors and toilets—but I still have that same attitude about work.

DK: What was his—you told me this before—what was his Yiddish term about get behind and push?

SL: Yeah, so my dad—for whom Yiddish was his first language—when I was talking with him many years going now—he has Alzheimer’s and he's deep into it, so I—we haven't had a real conversation with my dad in probably a decade. But before that, one of the last, if not the last real conversation I had with my father; I was visiting them in their condo in Palm Springs and my dad always asked four questions, you know one of which was, “How's work?" The others were “How's your love life? How's your car? And “Do you have enough money?” We call them the four questions—we got them—all five of us got them every Sunday. So “How's work” and I started talking about the burdens of fundraising and how hard it was. And he looked to me said—now you have to remember everything my father ever said in Yiddish was a double entendre and dirty. Everything. Because…

DK: I remember.

SL: Right, so my dad looked me says (Yiddish). So what does that mean? He says, "If you push, it goes." Just keep pushing. And I'm my father's son; I just you know keep pushing. So how do I prepare—you know I just...I do it. There was there was one summer when I was a young associate rabbi and the senior rabbi disappeared for three months to Israel. Left me, because we were in the middle of hiring a third, left me alone with you know a twenty-five hundred family congregation. I had fourteen funerals in seventeen days. You know I did it? (Yiddish) I just pushed. Or I just did it. I treated everyone of them all the way I would want to have been treated, and worked super hard. I was younger—it was a little easier then. So I'm very old fashioned about work, you know. That's part of it. The decompression part; I have this ritual or every time I leave the cemetery, I call my wife. And I really—you know there are many difficult things about dealing with death—but one of the upsides is it really encourages you to appreciate life. And one of the ways I reframe what I've just been through in a positive way is I call Betsy. And she knows why I'm calling and I know I'm calling because I feel really fortunate that we have each other, and that we're alive. And that's a way I can't say of decompressing, but it is a way of reframing the death experience because death ultimately ought to change your life. I'm talking about this Yom Kippur this year. How does the contemplation of our deaths—how can it help us change our lives? Because it starts with me buying cemetery property, which I did this past June, and it opens with me—a scene wherein I am literally standing on my own grave—and what that feels like. And the sermon unfolds in a way that encourages every person listening to consider what it means to stand upon one's own grave, in the literal and metaphorical sense.

DK: Well, as I said at the top I've known you for a long time. I've benefited in multiple, multiple ways from that relationship. Today is one more example of that and the good part about that is we get to share this conversation. We get to share the encouragement to buy the book—all of that sort of stuff—but moments like this remind me how fortunate that I am, my family is, all these congregants are. And today will be living proof of that, so thank you for—

SL: Thank you Drew.

DK: ...sitting here and this is TELL ME WHAT TO SAY. This is Drew Kugler with Steve Leder. Thanks.