Napa congregation finds its match in new rabbi

Rabbi Oren Postrel can play a mean guitar, lead worship in French and draw a convincing comparison between the powers of wine and Shabbat.    

After posts in New York, Paris and Tahoe Vista, Postrel, the Bay Area native has returned to Northern California as the rabbi of Napa’s Congregation Beth Sholom. He joined the synagogue July 1.

Postrel, 45, believes the position is the culmination of his life’s work.

“This is the position I’ve been waiting for since rabbinic school,” he said during a recent interview at the Napa Valley Museum. From a spiritual perspective, Postrel believes there is a distinct alignment between the community’s interests and his own.

“This is a community that wants to explore its Judaism as a major focus of its identity, and that’s thrilling,” he said. “It is also a community with an extremely large spirit. I’m excited about that.”

Earlier that day, he spoke to a group of local Jewish vintners and their families, nearly 100 in all, at the close of L’Chaim, the annual weekend celebrating Jewish life and winemaking history in the Valley.

Eleven members of the synagogue spent 18 months in their nationwide search for a new spiritual leader. In the end, Postrel was chosen for his unique perspective and forward-thinking views, said Zoe Kahn, Beth Sholom member and co-founder of the Jewish Historical Society of Napa Valley.

“He’s just unique and talented and sensitive and caring,” Kahn said. “He’s spiritual, humane, exciting, and he gets involved in the creative process.”

Indeed. Postrel’s past work outside of worship includes expanding programming for youth and the elderly. At Beth Sholom, he will work with Yachad, the temple’s youth program, in addition to bikkur cholim (visiting the sick) and facilitating Jewish arts, cultural and intellectual life.

While the worship style and Reform text will not change, Postrel is eager to feed the congregation’s hunger for Hebrew and spiritual guidance.

“I would like to guide the community to a deeper and truly substantive Jewish experience that looks at text very closely and that uses music in a sensitive and moving way,” said the rabbi, who has played guitar for more than 30 years. “I would love to teach Torah from that same perspective.”

Postrel grew up in the Sunset District of San Francisco before relocating with his family to Burlingame. His parents are members of Congregation Emanu-El, where they taught Hebrew and Postrel had his bar mitzvah.

He studied art history at U.C. Berkeley before attending Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Los Angeles, where he earned his master of arts in Hebrew letters. In 1993, he was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.

Immediately after ordination, he was engaged by the Mouvement Juif Liberal de France in Paris, where he ministered to young adult members and interfaith couples and preached in French.

Other rabbinic posts include communities in Michigan and New York, as well as the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living in Danville, and most recently, North Tahoe Hebrew Congregation in Tahoe Vista.

Postrel said he feels fortunate to have always lived and served communities in beautiful places. “Whether it’s been the near wilderness of the Sierra Nevada, or wonderful metropolises, I’ve always been very lucky.”

Napa is no exception, especially given his refined palate and online column, Wines & Spirit, where he punts on everything from toast-making to the “curvy and voluptuous” finish of a Honig Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc.

However, he makes it clear that his hobby exceeds pure consumption. He sees wine as a verbal, spiritual, even scholarly pleasure.

“You can compare the ability for Shabbat to elevate spirits with Jewish text and music as well as the ability for wine to elevate our spirits,” he said, pausing before adding, “and not in a drunken way.”