As Rabbi Meir Goldstein walks across the Pardes Jewish Day School campus, he banters with students and faculty, asking them how their day has been. His easygoing manner and sense of humor put people at ease. If you ask him what he enjoys about working at Pardes, his response: “What don’t I enjoy?”
Goldstein, who became director of Jewish Life and Learning at Pardes Jewish Day School at the beginning of the school year, traveled a roundabout path to the rabbinate.
Growing up in the Valley, Goldstein attended preschool at the old Jewish Community Center on Maryland Avenue. In 1980, his family moved to Scottsdale and joined Temple Solel, where he was active in the youth group and went to Hebrew High.
From there, Goldstein studied anthropology at University of Arizona. “I was very interested in college, and still am, about how we construct value, how we construct meaning in our lives,” he says. While he enjoyed the scholarship, Goldstein wanted a more hands-on experience. After graduating, he joined AmeriCorps VISTA, a federal agency that engages Americans in service through volunteering, and ran literacy programs for children in some of the poorest primary schools in Eugene, Ore. Then, he worked with homeless teenagers, took classes at the university and engaged in tikkun olam activities.
“I found myself walking around and I had all these songs from camp, memories of sitting outdoors at Camp Pearlstein and singing songs. I started going to Hillel on Friday nights,” he says. The Hillel rabbi introduced him to some of the great Jewish thinkers, including Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem. “I was really getting turned on to some of the deep wisdom that Judaism had to offer,” he says.
At that point, he realized that his life had many disparate aspects – tikkun olam, scholarship and community work – and by interacting with the Hillel rabbi, he realized that becoming a rabbi could bring all the pieces together. There was only one thing missing – he needed to go to Israel to learn Hebrew.
In order to save money for the trip, Goldstein returned to the Valley and worked at the Arizona State University Hillel with Rabbi Barton Lee, “who was a tremendous influence on me as well,” he says. “A more compassionate and brilliant man would be hard to find.”
After saving enough money, Goldstein traveled to Israel and went to an ulpan for several months to study Hebrew. He was accepted to rabbinical school at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, and started a one-year, pre-rabbinic program, which centered on biblical grammar and modern Hebrew grammar. At the end of the year, he decided it wasn’t the right fit, so he transferred to the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University in Los Angeles (formerly known as University of Judaism).
After ordination and taking several small pulpits, Goldstein decided he wanted to become a rabbi educator: “I’ve always had this tension within myself – loving what the pulpit has to offer in terms of working with multi-generations ... the other pull was this great love of education and creating the highest level of academics for a Jewish community.”
Before coming to Pardes, Goldstein taught at Milken Community High School, a private Jewish high school in Los Angeles that includes a middle school. When the position at Pardes came up, Goldstein applied. “This was a great opportunity because my whole family lives here and it would allow me to focus on the instruction and Jewish experience of 275 children in our community,” he says. After accepting the position, he and his wife, Laura, a harpist, moved to Arizona.
As director of Jewish Life and Learning, Goldstein oversees the Jewish Studies and Hebrew faculty and facilitates the tefillah programs on campus. Since arriving, he has been reviewing the school’s curriculum and educational goals and looking toward the future.
Goldstein is a strong supporter of Jewish day school. “It’s an opportunity to teach young adults and children as they’re developing their personalities about ethics and moral character,” he says. “And we can really work on developing literate Jews.”