Urban commuter congregation energizes new rabbi

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The new spiritual leader of San Jose's Temple Emanu-El wants to make Shabbat at the Reform synagogue more than a Friday night affair.

"My hope is to…take a look at Saturday morning not just for bar and bat mitzvah but for everyone," said Rabbi Dana Magat.

"My vision is to have on Shabbat morning study and prayer as well as nosh, as a way of creating a sense of community. And so we're going to experiment with this twice a month."

Magat assumed the post at the Reform congregation last month. He replaces Rabbi Mark Schiftan, who became senior rabbi at The Temple in Nashville, Tenn. Schiftan was previously associate rabbi at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.

Discussing his new position, Schiftan said: "The sense of community in the Midwest and South is unparalleled in any other part of the country. Jews belong 100 percent to synagogues. As senior rabbi, with a support staff, my new position will allow me to focus on the broader issue of community. I will be an ambassador to a wider Jewish community."

Magat, formerly associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego, said serving a "commuter congregation" in Silicon Valley provides different challenges. To address them, in the planning stages are informal community meetings at members' homes, "as a way of going to them."

He also plans to become involved in the rejuvenation of San Jose's downtown and active in community programs dealing with the homeless.

While serving Beth Israel, he was also vice president of the San Diego Rabbinic Association as well as San Diego program chair and Jewish community representative for Children's Sabbath, a national ecumenical program.

The rabbi grew up in the San Fernando Valley, where his family attended Temple Solael. He was drawn to Judaism early in life. During the year of his bar mitzvah, his father died and the synagogue's educator and cantor took him under their wing. The temple became a place where he could feel at home. Active in youth programs, he began teaching Israeli dance at age 13. Three years later, he taught a Sunday school class and made his first trip to Israel.

He received his bachelor's degree in religious studies from Cal State Northridge, and continued his studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institutes of Religion in Cincinnati, where he was ordained in 1993. He also holds a master's in education from the University of Judaism and in Hebrew letters from HUC-JIR.

He served Temple Israel in Greater Miami before moving to San Diego.

In past positions he has developed a number of programs for teenagers, including a bar-bat mitzvah program that involved performing acts of tzedakah in the community. Some students volunteered at convalescent homes and assisted with programs to feed the hungry.

In addition, he created an outreach program, with discussion groups for interfaith couples and families, Jews-by-choice and those contemplating conversion.

Emanu-El's president, Hank Stein, said the search committee was unanimous in selecting Magat. "He has a strong background in Jewish education. We feel he is very energetic and presents many new exciting ideas for our congregation."

Magat, who moved to the South Bay with wife Cheriel, 9-year-old daughter Shira and 10-month-old son Raya, plans to provide family-education programs at Emanu-El, "so parents and children can learn together."

He also wants to offer a basic Judaism class, "not just for those who are considering being Jewish, but for those who are born Jewish," he said. "We have many born Jews who don't understand what it is to be a Jew. To just be focused on interfaith families would be very narrow-minded."

Magat regards being a rabbi as "a privilege."

"I have a responsibility to help provide the tools for my congregants to search for meaning in their lives, through ritual and learning, counseling and the sharing of ideas," he said. "I believe my role is to validate, nurture and inspire others as they journey along the road of life."