One benefit of writing this blog is that it gives me an excuse to sit down and talk with our rabbis at much greater length than I normally would. This is the fifth in an occasional series of interviews with the clergy of Temple Sinai, my Reform congregation in Oakland, Calif.
Rabbi Yoni Regev started serving as Interim Assistant Rabbi at Temple Sinai in summer 2014, his first pulpit after ordination.
At age 31, Rabbi Regev is older than many new rabbis since he is Israeli and served in the Israeli army before enrolling in college and rabbinical school. His wife, Lara Pullan Regev, is also studying to become a rabbi and serves as Director of Jewish Living and Learning at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael. It’s unusual to have an Israeli-born rabbi serving an American congregation, so I asked a lot of questions about that!
Q: How did you decide to become a rabbi? Your father is a rabbi in Israel. How did that influence your decision?
A: My father was a rabbi and we were overtly Reform, which was unusual in Israel. I grew up going to the Reform movement’s kindergarten and then the early TALI schools as they were developing. (TALI is a Hebrew acronym for public schools that have Jewish enrichment, which were run by the Reform and Conservative movements.) My mom was a teacher in one of them, so it was an all-encompassing experience for us.
A lot of my parents’ friends were also rabbis and professionals in the Jewish community. In a lot of ways, it was all I knew. We had guests every Friday night. I remember the lively discussions around the table – politics of the day, politics of the Jewish world. My mom is a great cook and has kept a book since before my parents were married of every person they’ve hosted in our house, cross-indexed with what she prepared and what they like to eat and what they don’t like to eat.
Q: It sounds like she is not just a great cook, she is an obsessive-compulsive cook!
A: No, she is a hostess who takes things seriously. She cares about people feeling welcome. She would know that if someone last came to dinner in 1999, and enjoyed a particular rice dish, they might enjoy that rice dish again.
Q: Did your dad lead a congregation?
A: When I was first growing up, he was on the faculty at at Hebrew Union College [the Reform rabbinical school]. Born and raised in Tel Aviv, he was raised completely secular and first became exposed to Judaism through the Reform movement as part of a U.S.-Israel student exchange.
He was selected by his high school principal for an exchange program that involved going to Camp Swig in 1968, which was a transformative time for him. He became very involved with the nascent Reform movement in Israel when he came back. He became a youth group leader, and later decided to follow that up with rabbinical school.
I always enjoyed going to services with him. He would sometimes lead services at HUC. In 1989, he founded the Israel Religious Action Center, which is the Israeli counterpart of the Religious Action Center in Washington D.C., and which served as the legal arm of the Reform movement in Israel and in many ways its social advocacy arm as well. He served as its founding director through my years in high school and then was appointed as president of the World Union of Progressive Judaism in 2001.
Q: Quite a pedigree! It’s like being the son of a Chasidic rebbe.
A: It was all very natural for me. That said, my sister – who grew up in the very same house – couldn’t care less and was never excited about attending services. She’s a musician and now a pastry chef professionally. So that did not rub off at all on her.
Q: What was it that appealed to you?
A: It wasn’t just my father. The issues he was involved in – battles over “who is a Jew,” battles for conversion recognition, battles for freedom of religion in Israel – were things that were in the press and were hot topics all the time.
At the end of the day, I realized that being a rabbi combines all the things I feel passionate about – work with a community, daily study, and bending your mind in new directions. And I always loved the stage and being in front of people.
What I was drawn to as I was ending my army service was music. I had imagined I would follow the path to cantorial school. But almost as soon as I came to the States [for university] and started being involved in the Reform movement, I realized I loved singing but it wasn’t what I wanted to do full time.
Q: I was surprised to hear your dad is a sabra, because you have no Israeli accent. You have an American accent.
A: I always had that. My mom is American. She made aliyah in 1978. My sister and I were raised bilingual at home, speaking Hebrew with my father and English with my mom. My sister speaks English fluently but doesn’t sound American. So you could attribute it to my singer’s ear, but I have a suspicion it was influenced more by watching a lot of TV, because I don’t have my mom’s accent.
Q: In one of your high holiday sermons, you mentioned your decision to become a Reform rabbi in America rather than Israel. There is such a need in Israel for for an alternative to the poles of completely secular or completely Orthodox. It seems like it would be a very attractive place to be a Reform rabbi. What made you come to the U.S. to work?
A: As someone who related in the American vernacular, I felt I could explain the realities of life in Israel in a way that people could hear them. Also, I always felt I would do better working in a team and being part of an established institution. In Israel, it’s still very much a start-up kind of approach [in the Reform movement].
One interesting thing is that since I started school, the interest within Israel in becoming a Reform rabbi has spiked incredibly. Ordination classes of one or two were common in the 1990s, and four was considered a big class. Now they are ordaining much bigger classes. This is coinciding with a deep need within Israel for rediscovering authentic Jewish roots. For a long time, the notion was that … religion was really reserved for the Orthodox. If you weren’t Orthodox, you shouldn’t touch it. But we’ve started seeing people in Israel coming to the Reform movement for b’nei mitzvah and wedding services. Even though there is no legal recognition for [non-Orthodox] weddings, people are yearning for egalitarian, meaningful services.
The other part of [how I chose to work in the Untied States] was that I ended up meeting my wife Lara. She’s from L.A. and she was also applying to rabbinical school. At that point we decided our path would have us here.
Q: What’s it like to experience our liturgy in a language that you understand fluently? I know enough Hebrew to recognize most of the words, but it’s still not comfortable for me. I have to puzzle out the words.
A: For me as a Hebrew speaker, on the one hand, it’s so much clearer. But as I learn about the history of the liturgy, I realize how much I’ve glossed over because it’s so easy to understand. I’ve sometimes failed to see the liturgical work that went into structuring it. Reading it in English, I rediscover some of what the Hebrew means.
Q: Is it less mystical when you understand it and it seems part of daily conversation?
A: So much of popular culture and music in Israel comes from liturgy. Part of it is an earlier generation of people trying to reclaim ownership of the traditional Jewish sources by popularizing them, like psalms that made it on the pop charts.
Think about the Shma that we sing anytime we’re not using the organ. Tzvika Pik, who is sort of a Bob Dylan in Israel, wrote that melody for a festival. He also wrote the melody for Adon Olam that we use today, which was played on the radio in Israel.
So what’s it like to understand it? In some ways, it may breed a little bit of contempt or lack of attention. But I always try when I pray to find at least one thing that I haven’t noticed before.
Q: One question I ask all the rabbis I interview: What is your personal view of God?
A: The easiest answer is that I believe in a God that is the source of creation and the source of everything we see around us in the world. At the same time, I struggle with the God of the Bible, who doesn’t pay very good attention, who gets angry too easily, who seems to have created us with all kinds of faults.
The great challenge is that so much of our faith is built around prayer and a kind of immediate personal relationship with God. Our prayers are deeply personal and invoke a centuries-old covenant, which is continually rededicated between us and God. It’s a reciprocal kind of covenant.
If we don’t buy into that kind of relationship, then in some ways prayer becomes an act devoid of meaning. Yet I’m a big believer in prayer – not just because of the kind of transformational power it has on people, but because I believe it does have an effect on God.
Q: So you think there’s a God who listens and responds to prayer?
A: I didn’t say that. I don’t think that’s how it works. And I very much like the framework of Reform theology, which says that waiting around for God to act and for the Messiah to redeem this world is not what God expects of us.
Rather, prayer is in many ways an internal call to action — an understanding that the work of creation is in many ways done, but caring for this world is an imperative left to us.
In some ways it would be so much better if like most Ultra-Orthodox Jews, we could just say “It’s in God’s hands, I’m not in charge, God put down a rule book and I’m just going to follow the rules, and anything that happens is God’s will.” That’s very freeing. But then so much of the exploration and responsibility for what we see in the world around us is taken out of the picture.
I can say with some confidence that there is a God that set the universe in motion. And that in order for life to have meaning, God set the universe in motion with the intent to care for what happened after that. Our work is to reach back and find the connection between us and the God who set it in motion.
In times where people find comfort in another image of God, I don’t deny it. I don’t pretend to have a definitive image of God. When I’m called upon to provide comfort in the name of God, I bring God as close as I can and allow that to mean whatever it means to the individual who needs God. I don’t see a paradox or dishonesty in that, because we don’t have an answer one way or the other.
Q: How about the other big question. What do you think happens after death?
A: If nothing else, we are at peace. We are relieved of the weight of being alive.
There’s a lot of comfort in the traditional view that we are gathered up with our ancestors, and I try not to make that too literal or embodied. The idea that we are connected to this chain of people who came before us is meaningful. Those who have passed live in our hearts and minds, and thus live in our midst. Honoring our dead and celebrating their lives is one of the things that gives our own lives meaning. We pass that on to the next generation, and thereby matter in some deep and lasting way.
That’s one of the reasons I decided to focus very strongly on re-examining our approach to Jewish burial as part of my senior work [in rabbinical school]. I recently published an article discussing the need to re-examine burial and death — specifically how we have lost touch with the generational connection meant to take place as part of the burial process.
Q: What are we not doing that we used to do?
A: The roots of of Jewish burial have almost nothing to do with how we practice today, which derives from Europe in the middle ages.
At its root [in Biblical times], burial was a family affair. You had a family or clan burial plot – usually a cave. When you died, you were laid to rest in this burial cave for a year. At the end of a year, the family would return for what was the original yahrtzeit and perform the final act of unreturned mercy – gathering up your bones and placing them in an ossuary with your ancestors’ bones, so you would be physically gathered up with them.
As a living person, you had a deep understanding of where you came from and where you were going. Your relationship to the deceased did not end with their death.
Today, my grandparents on one side are buried in Israel and I don’t get to visit them as often as I’d like. My grandparents on the other side are still living, but their parents are buried in Rochester N.Y. and Providence R.I. I’ve been there once or twice. When I have children, I doubt they’ll ever go.
In major metropolitan areas, the ability to bury within an hour of the city has almost completely disappeared. So you are not able to visit, to interact, to be connected with the deceased. Cremation is not any better. It’s much worse for that purpose.
This is a broader question that society is going to have to face. Societies have changed and there are so many more people alive now. There are more people who are going to die in the next century than have died up until now in all of modern history…. The earth can sustain that amount of burial, but not in cities.
Q: Are you suggesting we go back to ossuaries?
A: We have to reimagine what it means to be gathered up to your ancestors. The family unit has become so fluid and so fractured that saying you are going to have a connection with your family burial place is simply unrealistic. But it’s a kind of responsibility that communities can take upon themselves in a way that families cannot.
There are different ways to do that. Temple Beth-El in Boca Raton has a mausoleum on the synagogue premises. They have found that people enjoy making a visit to their loved ones a part of visiting the synagogue. Unlike the rare visits to the cemetery, connecting death with the ongoing cycle of life demystifies it and engenders a better connection through the generations.
Q: I would ask this question of any rabbi. But particularly as an Israeli rabbi working in America, how do you feel American Jews should relate to Israel?
A: That is a question I feel very strongly about. American Jews have been given short shrift as far as their relationship with Israel. For a long time, the paradigm has been that we derive part of our authenticity from Israel, and since we live comfortably here, we owe some sort of tax on our comforts to support our beleaguered brothers in Israel.
Unfortunately, this means we have ceded the kind of responsibility and investment in the fabric of Jewish life that was envisioned in founding the state of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people.
One of the great truisms of the Israeli political psyche is, “You don’t live here, you’re not exposed to the terror that we live with, your kids don’t go in the army – so butt out. We know better. This is our life.”
I don’t think that’s extraordinarily wrong. There are security realities that simply can’t be judged from the outside. At the same time, I do believe that Israel is the project of the Jewish people. For us to feel a sense of ownership over that project, we have to be given a bigger stake in the game than being cheerleaders on the sidelines.
Q: Should American Jews be allowed to criticize Israeli policy, particularly around the settlements and the peace process?
A: Up to a point, absolutely. The notion that any criticism from within exposes us to a weakened position facing the outside world is a form of self-delusion. If your positions are so weak that they can’t withstand a real critical debate, then you’re obviously not standing on a very strong foothold. Any political system that rejects dissent out of hand is one that is deeply uncertain of itself.
That said, there is truth to the reality that American Jews – as well as Americans and Europeans in general – do treat Israel with a different set of standards. They apply a standard that is far, far stricter and disproportionate relative to other democracies.
Look at what’s happening right now on border of Turkey and Syria, in Kubani. Thousands of ethnic Palestinians are being put to the sword, but I don’t see demonstrations in San Francisco. I don’t see people in the Port of Oakland blocking Turkish or Syrian ships from coming to port. There have been 160,000 civilians killed in the civil war in Syria, and no one is marching down the street over that.
At the U.N. Human Rights Council, nearly half of all condemnations are against Israel. Is Israel perfect? No. But does it commit half of all human rights violations in the world? No. Is it worse than Sudan? Than Darfur? No. Would I even put it in the same sentence as those countries? No.
Q: I believe that Israel as an issue is going to be increasingly challenging for American synagogues, because Israeli politics keep moving further and further to the right. There will be a schism between Israel and many U.S. Jews if we don’t get any kind of peace settlement and end up with de facto annexation.
A: That’s a true and very challenging perspective. The collapse of the ‘90s peace movement left a vacuum of political aspiration for peace in Israel that has been very hard to replace. The disillusionment has been crippling. When I was growing up, parents would always say, “By the time you grow up, peace will have come and you won’t need to go in the army.” I don’t think anyone says that anymore.
The ingredients [for a peaceful settlement] are there. Everyone knows the basic premises for peace. But it has to become more costly for both sides to go on fighting than to make the sacrifices for peace. So far, it’s been too costly to make the sacrifices for peace.
Any actual peace will require both sides losing significant standing. And since both sides still want to win, we don’t have peace.
Q: As American Jews, what can we do? Do we just have to wait for Israel and the Palestinians to bloody each other enough?
A: Partly, we need to have that conversation – that it’s too costly to not make peace. We need to say, “We believe that peace is necessary, justice is necessary, equality is necessary.”
Carte blanche for the established political system in Israel has not proven successful. But do I think boycotts or divestment are right? No. The solution is not withholding funds but giving funds, in a more directed way. Voting with your pocketbook rather than using it to slap someone down.
Q: So we should fund the institutions of civil society there?
A: Yes, in a non-apologetic way. In a Jewish way. We’re pretty smart people. All we need to do is change the equation a little bit.
This is the fifth in a series of interviews with rabbis connected to Temple Sinai. Click on these links to read previous interviews with Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin, Rabbi Andrew Straus, Rabbi Andrea Berlin, and Rabbi Steven Chester.