Former Air Force rabbi hits ground running in Solano

Cradling the phone tightly to his ear, Rabbi Stephen Vale hears an all-too-familiar refrain drift from the receiver. It goes something like this:

"Hey, I think it's great that you're trying to start up a Jewish community here in Solano County, but I've got bad news for you, rabbi: My wife and I are the only Jews around here!"

The rabbi smiles.

"Well, I've got good news for you," he replies. "You're the eighth person who's told me that today!"

Vale, a former Air Force rabbi and captain who conducted High Holy Day services from Iceland to Italy to England, has returned to his old stomping ground as a man on a mission. The military rabbi at Travis Air Force Base from 1996 to 1998, Vale aims to rekindle Solano County's "lost Jewish community."

While Vallejo, in western Solano County, has been home to Congregation B'nai Israel for 83 years, eastern Solano, which includes Fairfield, Vacaville and Travis, does not have a synagogue. Vale's aim is to augment the existing Jewish institutions and unite the Jewish community, which is scattered between stronger Jewish enclaves in the Bay Area and Sacramento.

In addition, although he's no longer in the military, he is serving as a chaplain at Travis and at the state prison at Vacaville.

"There's never really been a Jewish community here, and it hasn't been active for a long, long time throughout the whole county," said Vale, who recently moved to a Suisun City apartment with his wife. "There have been little pockets and pieces here or there, although there are lots of Jews. Here's a place where I knew the people and they were saying 'come back, give it a try.'

"My Christian counterparts might call it a 'calling,'" Vale continued. "From God as well as from people."

As one of only seven Air Force rabbis in the nation, Vale was a popular and well-known figure at Travis in his two years there as a wing chaplain.

Services saw a marked increase in attendance as military personnel and civilians alike were drawn to the base by Vale's energy, humor and intellect, according to Jerry Block, a Dixon auto salesman who made the trek to the base for Vale's services in the '90s.

"It's a little bit of a shlep, but believe me, it's worth it," Block said. "He's a very, very bright rabbi. He knows his Jewish history, but he also knows people. [My wife] Sandy and I absolutely fell in love with him. At the time, she wasn't Jewish, and he helped convert her to Judaism. Now she's a stronger Jew than I'll ever be.

"I saw the way he handled services and thought 'I've got to know this man.' He's regular people, a real sweetheart."

Because of the transitory nature of the Air Force, Vale was forced to leave his burgeoning congregation in 1998 after receiving a transfer to Lackland AFB in San Antonio, Texas.

Vale, who is in his early 40s, was honorably discharged from the military on June 22. The first thing he did was something even rabbis can't do in the Air Force — grow a beard. Then he and his wife, Arielle, headed back to the Bay Area to fulfill a longtime dream for the onetime "disenfranchised Jew."

Vale, a Berklee College of Music-educated composer and pianist, didn't originally set out to be a rabbi. In fact, following his bar mitzvah, he "didn't look back" to Judaism for 11 years, until he experienced an epiphany in Rabbi Ted Falcon's former Southern California synagogue. While he was studying with Falcon, Vale's Judaism was reawakened, and the professional musician made the unusual career transition to professional rabbi.

"I always wanted to touch people like I was touched," recalled Vale. "I felt, 'Wow, this guy [Falcon] reached out to a Jew who was completely disenfranchised — me.'"

Vale's devotion to outreach led him to join the military and to continue his studies at the University of Judaism as well as the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary, where he received his ordination in 1996. That same drive is what brought him back to Solano County.

"Here is a gold mine of disenfranchised Jews," he said. "I call them a 'lost community.' There's stuff going on here, but people are completely disconnected with the greater world of Judaism. My goal has been to take the shards and pieces and help build a uniform Jewish community based on spiritual values."

Living with the Blocks for 2-1/2 months over the summer, Vale threw himself into building that community.

"I've never seen a man work so hard," observed Block.

Vale started up a new organization, merging it with the 7-year-old Jewish Center of Solano County, a chavurah that the rabbi said served mostly elderly Jews. Naming it the Jewish Community of Solano County, he incorporated the organization on the state level. He culled through phone rosters, sent out fliers and e-mails, wrote grant proposals and published a newsletter.

The hard work appears to be paying off. Vale's Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, both held at St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Vacaville, each drew more than 120 — no small feat in eastern Solano County.

A Chanukah party thrown at the Travis chapel attracted 60 folks, many with small children in tow.

The JCSC boasts about 50 households, and Vale says he receives at least one phone call a week from people who aren't on any of his lists asking how they can get involved. He estimates that "well over" 300 to 500 Jewish households may call Solano County home.

Vale claims to be the first non-military rabbi to live in the county in more than 30 years.

"Rabbi Vale has come back as a civilian and he wants to support the civilian Jewish community of Solano County — it's a miracle, a little like Chanukah!" said Col. Steve Golden, a pediatrician at the David Grant Medical Center on Travis AFB. "Usually, when people want a rabbi, they get together and try to hire someone from the community. This time, the rabbi came back and said, 'I want you!'"

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.