Spiritual leader brings love of music to Vallejo shul

Moving to Napa, Bella Bogart-Gelven e-mailed congregations in the region, seeking part-time work teaching religious school or serving as a cantorial soloist.

Instead, Solano County's lone synagogue, Congregation B'nai Israel in Vallejo, hired her as its new spiritual leader. In addition to conducting services, the singing, guitar-playing Bogart-Gelvin will also lead the religious school.

Cantor Bella, as she is known, is believed to be the first woman hired as religious leader in the synagogue's nearly 100-year history. That, plus her musical style, represent a departure for the independent congregation, which has leaned toward Conservatism in its ritual.

Bogart-Gelven is neither an ordained cantor nor a rabbi. But if this fact bothers congregants at B'nai Israel, she hasn't heard about it. Bogart-Gelven, who is considering becoming a rabbi, draws from both her Orthodox Jewish upbringing and 18 years as worship leader at Temple Ramat Shalom in Florida

Although the move was unexpected by both synagogue members and by Bogart-Gelven herself, she nevertheless believes it was beshert (meant-to-be).

"I had planned to take a year or two off after nearly 20 years [at the Florida synagogue]," said Bogart-Gelven. "I just wanted a place where I could sing a song or two or teach a class a couple of times a week." As it happened, however, Rabbi Samuel Broude, the rabbi emeritus at Temple Sinai in Oakland, had been performing rabbinical duties at B'nai Israel, but he wanted to cut back. At about that time, last summer, the synagogue's board of directors received the e-mail inquiry from Bogart-Gelven. After inviting her to conduct a service, they decided to hire her to fulfill several functions at the temple, including religious school principal, teacher and spiritual leader.

"I plan to create warm, inclusive Friday night services that are relevant and musical and enjoyable," she said, "and to revitalize our religious school and focus on adult education as well."

Bogart-Gelven was raised in a strict Orthodox home in New York and shared a house with her extended family. Her parents were both born in pre-World War II Austria. Her mother fled to England just ahead of the Anschluss, the German takeover of Austria. Most of her family members weren't so fortunate, and were murdered by the Nazis.

Her father joined the Resistance and escaped Austria in 1941. He was smuggled into pre-state Israel on a fishing boat. There he joined the Haganah, the pre-state freedom fighters, where, among other duties, he became a cook.

"So every time he ever cooked anything while I was growing up, he made it for 200 people," she said. Her parents met in pre-state Israel in the early 1950s, got married three weeks later and immigrated to the United States.

"My father didn't have enough money to pay the port tax to get off the boat," Bogart-Gelven said. "My grandfather had to pay it for him."

Her father, she added, "was one of those people dancing in the streets when the state of Israel was declared."

Yet until recently, Bogart-Gelven said, she didn't fully appreciate the historical significance of her parents' lives. "Telling my children about it, and seeing it through their eyes helped me see it. My daughter said, 'Wow, Saba (Grandpa) is a hero' and I said, 'Well, yes, I guess he is.'"

Despite her Orthodox roots, Bogart-Gelven said she rejected her religion when she reached adulthood and became "very assimilated." She attended Rutgers University, studying journalism and music, and later moved to Florida, where she essentially fell into a job with a new synagogue that formed in her town. "A Reform congregation started in my town and they needed a cantor, and I volunteered just because I knew how to do it," she said. "It was a way to get paid to sing. I did that for a year and a half. Then I studied under a Conservative cantor and was hired by a Reconstructionist congregation in Plantation, Fla. I stayed there for 18 years." The rabbi at that congregation was of the Reconstructionist bent, a movement that approaches Judaism as an evolving religious civilization.

A new marriage brought the mother of three to Northern California. She met her current husband, a Napa vintner, online and moved her family to the area.

"It was a culture shock moving to Napa," she said. "Nobody's Jewish. I found that being in this totally non-Jewish environment, I missed it. I felt at loose ends. So I sent an e-mail to all the congregations within an hour's drive from my house, and said if you ever need anyone to sing or teach or anything…and B'nai Israel called."

Now that she's taken on the small Jewish congregation, Bogart-Gelven hopes to enliven the county's Jewish community by making the temple a place that will fill a wide spectrum of needs. She hopes to make both services and religious school in her synagogue more fun.

Also, she said, "My definition of what a synagogue is supposed to be isn't just a spiritual center. It should also be an educational, social and communal center — a kind of extended family. "

She plans to strengthen the community by joining forces with other Jewish institutions nearby. Making those connections is "important in a community where there are not a lot of Jews," she said. "Especially for our kids. It's not like we're 100 miles from the nearest large Jewish community. And we need to become more of a presence in the larger community, if for no other reason than to be part of people's consciousness."

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County." She is a wife and mother of two grown sons and grandmother of three.