Former architect builds bridges to the soul

Rabbi James Brandt had an unorthodox blueprint for his path to spiritual fulfillment. He used to be an architect.

Brandt, the new director of the Center for Jewish Living and Learning, which is the educational arm of the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay, grew up in Los Angeles, where he aspired to dig holes, not mend souls.

As an architecture student at U.C. Berkeley in the early 1980s, Brandt sought to combine his interest in architecture with his strong belief in social justice, which culminated in his studying environmental design.

But the impetus for his spiritual journey was the death of his father, who had served as his mentor in Judaism. Brandt’s father, Rudolph, grew up in a shtetl outside Prague, and came from a long line of rebbes. Both James Brandt’s grandfather and great-grandfather were rebbes, and Brandt’s father was expected to continue the family tradition. Instead, Rudolph Brandt became a psychoanalyst. Nonetheless, he frequently discussed Jewish ethics and values with his son, and the family was raised within the Conservative Jewish tradition.

“After my father’s death, I had to ask myself the question of how I would carry on the tradition of Judaism, because my father had always set the example for me,” Brandt said during a recent phone interview.

The answer to the last question came in large part from another mentor that had a huge influence on Brandt’s spiritual journey — Berkeley Professor Jesse Reichek. Reichek, who died last year, was a member of the university’s design faculty, but was also extremely well-versed in Jewish philosophy. He was a highly acclaimed painter and had painted one piece for each of the 160 verses of the biblical “Song of Songs.”

Until Reichek’s death, Brandt and the professor would talk for several hours a week about Jewish ethics and values.

“My relationship with Professor Reichek was one of the greatest gifts in my life,” said Brandt. “It made me understand the profound love a student can have for a teacher.”

After graduation from Berkeley, Brandt continued his architecture studies at M.I.T., which turned out to be fortuitous. Brandt, who davened daily at Temple Beth Sholom in Cambridge, Mass., was approached by several members of the congregation who wanted to build a children’s center.

As Brandt recalls, the synagogue was emblematic of the city’s once-thriving Jewish life: broken-down and in need of repair. At the time of Brandt’s arrival in 1984, however, the area was beginning to see a re-emergence of a Jewish presence.

The funding process for building the center had a few snafus, however. There was no chief fund-raiser. There was a divided board of directors. And, most glaringly, there was no rabbi. With one fell swoop, Brandt solved the problems: He took on all three responsibilities, to varying degrees.

Not only did he become the president of the synagogue’s board, but he often went door to door to raise the funds for the project that he would oversee. And, since there was no rabbi at the congregation, he would often counsel people with spiritual questions. On a few occasions, Brandt interceded on behalf of congregants who had lost a loved one due to AIDS and were refused burial services from local mortuaries.

“That was a period of time that I really began searching for my Jewish soul,” recalled the 45-year-old rabbi, who still offers consultation on designing “sacred spaces.” That quest prompted him to leave architecture — and the country. Brandt headed for Israel, where he studied at Jerusalem’s Hebrew Union College.

After he was ordained as a rabbi, Brandt headed for another biblical heartland: Houston, Texas. For five years, Brandt was the rabbi at Reform Congregation Beth Sholom in The Woodlands, just outside Houston, where he occasionally found himself at odds with the town’s evangelical Christian community — especially when he wanted to include a local Muslim group in the town’s interfaith group.

When Brandt was told that group membership was limited to Christians and Jews, he formed his own group with Muslim membership, earning him a lot of media attention, and engendering both admiration and acrimony.

After five years in Houston, Brandt departed for Napa Valley, where he was the rabbi of Reform Congregation Beth Sholom, a post he held until his current position with the East Bay federation.

When asked about his work at the Center, Brandt referenced his previous mentors.

“Through my relationships with my father and Professor Reichek, I realized how fortunate I was to experience Judaism not only through textbooks but through textpeople … people who embodied the traditions of Judaism and inspired people to live lives committed to Jewish values.

“The scared work I do honors their memories, and when I teach other people about our traditions, I can feel my father and Professor Reichek with me. Their presence fuels my work.”