A senator, a rabbi and a civil rights activist walk into a bar

Last month, a Steinberg from Millbrae was honored on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. But it wasn’t the one who went into politics.

Instead of Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, the House was recognizing his younger brother, Jeff Steinberg, who founded Sojourn to the Past. Since 1999, the program has taken 6,000 high school students on a 10-day tour of the most important sites in the civil rights movement.

The third Steinberg brother, Ricky, is a head rabbi of a large synagogue in Orange County, and is known for the inspirational writings on his blog. The three baseball-loving boys from the Silicon Valley suburbs have become so successful they’ve prompted comparisons to the Emanuel brothers: White House chief of staff Rahm, noted bioethicist Ezekiel and Ari, a Hollywood agent who was the inspiration of Jeremy Piven’s character on “Entourage.”

“I can’t be Ari, cause Ari’s cutthroat, man,” Jeff objected. “I’m not cutthroat.”

Ok, maybe the Steinbergs aren’t that successful. But, as some have pointed out, they’re probably more…well, approachable than the Emmanuels (particularly Rahm).

This hasn’t stopped the three from having some long-standing grudge matches. The competition is particularly acute between Darrell, 50, and Jeff, 48 — who still trash talk about a 42-year-old ping pong game.

“There was a headline in the Millbrae Sun, the first time I was ever in the newspaper, I beat my brother Jeff in the Millbrae eight-and-under ping-pong championship,” Darrell said. “After it was over, he cried,” he added, laughing.

“He was much calmer and cooler,” Jeff said. “He could rile me just by being calmer and cooler. But when we got to college, I think I beat him for I think 75 straight games. Of course, that was all done privately. Publicly he won.”

Jeff also likes to lord over how he turned out to be the best athlete of three athletic brothers — and how he now towers several inches over his “big” brother. Darrell said their lives revolved around “the seasons” — that is, baseball, basketball and football. They played years of little league, as well as years of basketball inside a garage, where you had to loop outside shots over the rafters, something they all mastered.

Darrell was so competitive that he once sat through an entire Thanksgiving dinner without admitting that he’d dislocated his shoulder in a particular bit of sports roughhousing — and then almost missed the next season of baseball while it healed. Jeff went on to become the top tennis player at USC — as in, “University of Skyline College.”

Now 42, Rick Steinberg said that he was too young to participate fully in the sibling rivalry. But his teachers certainly remembered his high-achieving oldest brother by the time he made it to high school.

“To have two positive role models of guys out there doing neat stuff was really rewarding,” Rick said. “I just feel lucky when I think about it.”

But both younger brothers said the “studious” Darrell was an influence in other ways. Jeff said his older brother helped introduce him to the civil rights movement. One of his political heroes, who he got to meet while he was still in high school, was Hubert Humphrey. At home, he liked to play vinyl recordings of speeches by Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy for his brothers. He particularly loved King’s Mountaintop speech, the one he delivered in Memphis, Tenn., the night before he was assassinated.   

Jeff said this helped influence him to a 14-year career as a high school history teacher at Capuchino High School in San Bruno. It was during that time that he led the first Sojourn trip of 30 kids. That experience left him wanting more.

“I could see them turn on to what real learning is,” Jeff said.

He soon took a leave of absence from Capuchino that stretched out to seven years before he took the plunge and gave up his job. There have now been sixty trips, but he said the 10th anniversary trip in April was one of the most special. Congressman John Lewis, D-Ga., always meets the groups in Atlanta. It was Lewis who honored Jeff in Congress.

On this last trip, Lewis swore Jeff to secrecy, then met the group again as a surprise in Selma. They all walked together across the same bridge where he was hit with fire hoses and then arrested with others during a protest in 1965.

“Everyone was in tears as we were walking across that bridge,” Jeff said. “It was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen.”

But if there was a trip that rivaled that one, he said, it’s the 2003 trip that Darrell came on, while he was still in the Assembly. That one included a meeting with Minnijean Brown-Trickey, one of the “Little Rock Nine” who helped integrate schools there, under the watch of the National Guard, in 1957.

“He ended up having his own epiphany,” Jeff said. “I think the Civil Rights movement and this trip has helped him be the type of the legislator he is.”

Noting that the family has an uncle who survived the Holocaust, Jeff also noted, “You can’t help being Jewish in this country and not know what discrimination is about.”

Sojourn might not have happened at all if it weren’t for the third Steinberg brother, Rick. Growing up in the wake of two well-known high achievers, he said he always had an interest in justice and “all things Jewish.” He originally set out to be a police officer, even working for the police department part time during his senior year of college. But it wasn’t to be.
“It was a really good experience, but it taught me that it takes a special person to be a police officer and wasn’t one of them,” Rick said.

Instead he went to rabbinical school, then worked as a rabbi for six years in Cincinnati before returning to California. He’s been in Orange County for 10 years now. Rick modestly said that Congregation Shir Ha-Ma’alot in Irvine, where he is the head rabbi, isn’t a “mega-temple.” They only have 650 families and 3,000 people. A mega-temple, he said, has at least 1,000 families.

Darrell said that he keeps running into members of that congregation in Sacramento — and that many of them are on local school boards and other institutions. When Jeff decided that he wanted to do Sojourn fulltime – or rather, admit that Sojourn had become his fulltime job – one of Rick’s congregants set up a non-profit in his name, then arranged for him to receive an annual salary.

Of course, all of this achievement hasn’t come without a price. Rick frequently blogged about how overwhelming his life could sometimes be, between weddings, counseling, sermons, funerals and his own family. Jeff said he’s amazed with Darrell’s wife Julie’s ability to keep things together amidst the Pro Tem’s brutal schedule. His own marriage, he said, eventually came apart due to the time constraints of Sojourn.

“We all have kind of a fear of failure that drives us hard,” Jeff said. “You’re only as good as your last presentation or your last journey you took kids on. You pay a price for that, too. You work really hard, and you’ve got to make sure there is time for family.”

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