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From Archaeological Digs to Digging Bimah
In the early 1970s, Daniel Zucker, fresh out of college, thought he had found his life's passion in archaeology. The California native was helping to excavate Ein Gedi, an ancient site on the shores of the Dead Sea and loving every minute of it.
But then he became aware of a problem; none of his married supervisors ever seemed to get away. One missed the birth of his child and didn't arrive at the hospital until three days later.
The self-described "nice Jewish boy" knew he one day wanted a family and desired a career that was less "toxic" to marriage. So he decided to follow his father and his brother into the rabbinate, knowing full well that having a pulpit can also place great demands on one's time.
In 1974, he saw himself, religiously speaking, somewhere between a Conservative and a Reform Jew. He applied to the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles with the thinking that he'd rather be accused of being too observant for the Reform movement than too lenient for the Conservative movement.
But upon ordination, he went to a Conservative congregation in Tennessee and has since served synagogues within the movement in California, Illinois and New York. Over the years, he became much more traditional in his approach to Jewish law and now considers himself to the right of most Conservative rabbis.
Earlier this year, he assumed the pulpit of Congregation Hesed Shel Emet, Mercy and Truth in Pottstown, situated about an hour from Philadelphia in a onetime manufacturing hub. His wife, Elena Mustri-Sabi Zucker and 19-year-old daughter Rahel live with him in western Montgomery County. The couple has two other daughters, Yehudit, 32, and Fortine-Mazal Mustri, 25, and two grandsons.
"We're really in small-town USA," he said. "It's refreshingly conservative with a small 'c.' The kids in the religious school are all well-behaved. I don't have to worry about mini-micro-skirts that are so short that I can see their pupicks (belly buttons)."
Zucker said that in his 33 years in the rabbinate, he's never seen a congregation quite like this one. Members pay no religious school dues and are entitled to burial in the congregational cemetery without having to purchase a plot.
The synagogue has been without a rabbi for more than two years, since David Wortman had to step down because of illness.
Membership is down to about 85 families. But according to Zucker, there's "a core group of people who want to see this synagogue continue."
Zucker blogs about Middle East affairs from a hawkish perspective on websites such as americanthinker.com. But don't expect him to talk about politics from the bimah.
"I'm very careful in my congregational situation not to expose partisan politics," he said, adding that "most of my congregants realize that I am personally more conservative than many of them."