New Temple Beth Jacob rabbi champions hands-on Judaism

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Rabbi Nathaniel Ezray jokes that if the rabbinate doesn't work out he's going to win a lot of money on "Jeopardy" one day.

He's a bit of an expert.

"I always seem to have the right answers," he said. In addition to his expertise in Torah and Jewish ritual, Ezray seems to know a little about everything from international relations to the Grateful Dead. Especially the Grateful Dead.

A Northern California native, Ezray, 34, grew up on the music of Jerry Garcia and Mickey Hart. Although he doesn't have a tie-dyed tallit, Ezray claims he has all the right clothes for a concert.

But it doesn't appear he'll be joining the ranks of traveling DeadHeads or five-time "Jeopardy" winners anytime soon. Instead, in a sense he's coming home — reuniting with wife Mimi and 5-year-old daughter Emily, who are already living in Redwood City.

Next month Ezray, currently associate rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Newton, Mass., will take the reigns from 38-year veteran Rabbi H. David Teitelbaum at Redwood City's Conservative Temple Beth Jacob.

He admits it won't be easy following in the footsteps of a spiritual leader who has seen congregants from birth to b'nai mitzvah to marriage and parenthood. But he's prepared with a plan to create "a caring, warm synagogue."

"It begins with how they're greeted and reached out to," Ezray said.

In Boston that meant leading eight-week "Why Be Jewish?" classes and advertising them in secular newspapers as well as developing a family education program with a sophisticated learning component for parents. It also included writing pamphlets explaining Jewish ritual, which were kept in the sanctuary alongside the prayerbooks, and even creating a synagogue bereavement committee.

Ezray acknowledges that getting Bay Area Jews excited about Judaism will take more than tucking a few pages on the Shabbat service into the pews. Unlike the East Coast, which is home to a critical mass of observant Jews, Bay Area Jewry is often described as disconnected and less religious. Ezray views this portrayal as a challenge rather than an obstacle.

"There is a strong base of Jews in the Bay Area," said Ezray, a Sacramento native who grew up at the Mosaic Law Congregation in the same city. "But the challenge first is just getting people into services. It's the challenge to create a Judaism that is vibrant and compelling and makes it so people will want to come to shul again and again.

"People don't like to feel like they're wasting their time."

In busy times, he said, people don't want to sit in committee meetings. They prefer to take a hands-on approach to Judaism, learning by doing.

For example, in his Massachusetts congregation, the bereavement committee didn't spend a great deal of time discussing "what they should or could do." Instead, the group watched homes during funerals, picked up family members at the airport, lent an ear to those in mourning, and helped to explain Jewish rituals surrounding death, dying and loss.

Ezray believes such concepts will transfer well from the 1,400-family Boston congregation to Temple Beth Jacob. However, he'd like to take such theories a step further, with Temple Beth Jacob becoming an active center for learning and community service.

"What's compelling for me is the social justice of Judaism. I want our congregation to respond together to domestic violence, AIDS, black-Jewish relations," he said, adding "My passion is teaching, but the pulpit allows me the opportunity to teach in many different ways and to create meaning and relevance."

Mitch Reitman, executive director of Beth Jacob, is optimistic that Ezray will accomplish the goals of improved education, volunteerism and a sense of spirituality that Ezray and congregation leadership share.

"He's exciting to watch on the pulpit," Reitman said, referring to the services Ezray conducted at Beth Jacob while in town for interviews. "He really had the attention of the congregation. I think he's someone people will want to learn from."