Yonatan Regev has joined the family business. But instead of serving in Israel, where his father, Rabbi Uri Regev, has long promoted civil rights and religious pluralism, the son’s path took him to California.
The assistant rabbi at Oakland’s Temple Sinai grew up immersed in Israel’s Reform movement, but he didn’t set out to become a rabbi.
“I thought I wanted to be a cantor,” said Regev, 31. “I was a vocalist, I loved singing and loved teaching.”
Regev attributes his American accent to his musical ear and the fact that he grew up bilingual — his father is Israeli and his mother is from Rochester, New York. But there’s more to the story.
After serving in the Israel Defense Forces, he wanted to pursue a liberal arts education, something not readily offered in Israel, so he went to Cleveland’s Case Western University. While there, he attended a Jewish song leader conference where he met his future wife, Los Angeles native Lara Pullan.
Meanwhile, Regev realized that “as much as I loved music, it wasn’t the core of what I wanted to do, and that I could be a rabbi who sings.”
He and his wife entered rabbinical school together at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles and spent their first year, as students do, in Jerusalem, where one of the main goals is learning Hebrew.
While he didn’t need Hebrew instruction, and instead was able to take other classes with Israeli students, he joined the visiting Americans for field trips, absorbing their perspective on the sites he had seen while growing up.
He also sat in on his classmates’ Bible classes. “Even though I can just breeze through the text, my learning audience here can’t,” he said, “so it very quickly made me sensitive to the pace and investment [needed to help Americans] grapple with it.”
The short answer to how Regev got to Sinai could be summed up by “I followed my wife here.” She was hired first, as director of Jewish living and learning at San Rafael’s Congregation Rodef Sholom, and the couple live in Novato.
However, he cites at least two reasons why he loves the Oakland synagogue: its strong tradition of volunteerism, and its location in an area booming with newcomers, many of them young, Jewish families.
“We’re a part of Oakland, and we’re very proud to finally have the city come back and meet us. We’ve been waiting for it,” he said.
He also loves that his job description as assistant rabbi means he does just about everything.
“Rabbi Regev is a great fit for Temple Sinai,” said Senior Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin. “He is warm, smart, creative and wonderfully enthusiastic about learning who we are as a community and becoming an integral part of it.”
As an Israel-born rabbi serving an American congregation, Regev said, “I can really speak to Americans and not be questioned about my Zionism or my bona fides to question Israel when it needs to be challenged.”
Growing up in Israel within the Reform tradition, Regev is the first to admit that until recently, the movement in Israel was minuscule, largely imported by immigrants. But in recent years, Israel’s Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism has mushroomed, with more than 40 congregations and communities throughout the Jewish state. In fact, a recent survey reports that when asked which of the major Jewish movements they found most to their liking, 34 percent cited the Progressive-Reform movement. While membership in Israel’s Reform-Progressive congregations is only about 10,000 family units, programs and affiliations are growing, according to ReformJudaism.org.
“We’ve seen a generational shift where there is leadership and interest among the Israeli populace, reclaiming their own Jewish identity and exploring their own Jewish roots,” said Regev. “It’s not just the Anglo-Saxon community anymore.”
His father, who has long been a spokesman for the Reform movement in Israel, will wear another hat when he speaks in the Bay Area this week and next. Rabbi Uri Regev, who is now CEO of Hiddush, a nonprofit working for religious freedom and equality in Israel, will discuss what’s at stake in the upcoming Israeli elections (see sidebar).
And what does dad think of his son following in his footsteps?
Said Uri Regev: “We need more skilled, committed, talented professional Jewish leaders, and I’m delighted that he decided to make this contribution by choosing this path.”