Rabbi Ruven Barkan says his first and second grade teacher at Tucson Hebrew Academy “introduced me to God.”
Morah Brandwein (the title means “teacher” in Hebrew) spoke to her students in glowing terms of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. “She planted a Jewish seed in my soul,” says Barkan, 43, who is now the education and youth director at Congregation Anshei Israel.
But his path from THA to the rabbinate was not always obvious. After graduating from THA in 1986 and starting high school, he felt lost. Even with Hebrew High two evenings a week, and membership in two Jewish youth groups, BBYO and United Synagogue Youth, he felt that something was missing.
He tried both University and Rincon High Schools, and jumped at the chance to spend his junior year on a kibbutz in Israel, not realizing that it was a secular kibbutz. “I was kind of spinning in all directions,” he says.
Barkan didn’t finish high school, but after another spell on the kibbutz, he earned his GED diploma so he could go to college. After a year at Northern Arizona University, he transferred to the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, now called American Jewish University.
“That was a great place for me. I really was able to understand that there is a very sophisticated Jewish world view that is behind all the Jewish stuff I’d been somewhat doing, growing up,” he says. During the summers he returned to Camp Ramah, where he’d been a camper, as a staff member. And when he decided to go to rabbinical school, he asked Morah Brandwein to write a letter of recommendation.
After graduating from the Jewish Theological Seminary, Barkan spent 11 years teaching at a Conservative high school in Chicago, helping teens study everything from Talmud to the works of the 20th century theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. “I loved that position,” he says, precisely because his own teen years had been so difficult. He then served as a pulpit rabbi for three years in Savannah, Ga., before coming home to Tucson.
At Anshei Israel, Barkan runs the religious school for kindergarten through eighth grades, and the USY youth groups, which go from fourth grade through high school. “I love being back — it’s such a feeling of home, in a very deep way,” he says. His family is here, and there are many familiar faces — including his colleague, Lynne Falkow-Strauss, director of Anshei Israel’s preschool/kindergarten, who used to drive carpool with his mother when he was in preschool.
Barkan met his wife, Adina Weber, while at the University of Judaism and they married while he was at rabbinical school. Since moving to Tucson, they’ve become foster parents and now have a foster baby. “We’re excited about the long term of fostering,” he says.
While Tucson has grown in the 25 years he was away, “it’s wonderful to see how Anshei Israel has maintained its very solid foundation,” he says. Sharing Rabbi Robert Eisen’s “bold, strong vision of strengthening families,” he says, has made all the difference in his position. “It’s amazing to be a rabbi where my entire focus is on that — to strengthen families and build community for youth and for families.”