As a rabbinical student in 1989, Jack Gabriel was rubbing elbows with one of the world’s most famous puppets. While studying to be a Renewal rabbi, a friend asked him to sing on a Kermit the Frog album. Gabriel jumped at the chance and ended up recording lead vocals for “Sing Along with Kermit.”
“It was very cool,” said Gabriel, 61, the newly hired spiritual leader at Shir Shalom, the only synagogue in Sonoma. He leads his first service July 27.
Singing with Kermit was not Gabriel’s debut in the music industry. He started writing music at 15 and became heavily involved in the business long before the rabbinate came calling. Signed to Columbia Records soon after finishing his graduate studies in clinical psychology at York University in Toronto, Gabriel worked as a songwriter, performer and record producer into his 40s.
He had the same manager as Bette Midler, Al Pacino and The Manhattan Transfer.
“They all did slightly better than I did, but it was kind of cool being in that circle of artists,” he said.
After getting restless traveling and performing his songs, Gabriel took a job for the next decade with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In 1992 he received a Juno Award, the Canadian version of the Grammy Award, for producing the best children’s album of the year.
As a rabbi, Gabriel writes music for davening and teaching, a skill his new synagogue is eager to take advantage of.
“We’re getting to be an older community and we need somebody who’s going to touch the younger people,” said Bonnie Lasky, the chair of the synagogue’s search committee.
“I think he’s the person to inspire any age range.”
Lasky said Gabriel has discussed starting up a Jewish musical festival in Sonoma and teaching Shir Shalom’s teenagers Jewish reggae to keep them connected after their bar and bat mitzvahs.
“I write everything that comes through me,” said Gabriel, who has composed around 300 songs — from children’s tunes to ballads to prayers — to “little strokes of Chochma,” wisdom from God.
At Shir Shalom, Gabriel said he wouldn’t shy away from introducing everything from Chassidic to Jamaican melodies in worship.
Rabbi David Zaslow, the Renewal spiritual leader at Havurah Shir Chadash in Ashland, Ore., said Gabriel’s services “defy simple categorization,” extending beyond the borders of any denomination.
“Rabbi Jack blends spirituality, joy and being cool in a way that just nobody else can do. He’s a mentor for many of us rabbis in the way he bridges the old world to the new world; traditional Judaism with hip Judaism; performance of mitzvot with inner psychological transformation. He bridges the young and the old and makes people feel a part of something big.”
Gabriel’s unique brand of all-inclusive Judaism was a major selling point for the synagogue of 85 families.
A self-described “cross-denominational” Jew, the fact that he is not a Reform rabbi is not a problem, Lasky said. Nor is it a problem that Gabriel did not attend a formal seminary.
“We will still be a Reform congregation, just opening a window to the world,” Lasky said.
Gabriel described embracing different streams of Judaism and interfaith families into Jewish communities as a survival skill — a message he internalized while leading small, mostly interfaith, independent Jewish communities in New York, New Jersey and Colorado.
In 2003 Gabriel became the CEO and president of Kol HaLev, a nonprofit organization that reaches out to the unaffiliated Jewish community in Denver.
He most recently served the community of B’nai Vail, an unaffiliated congregation of 180 families, for one year.
In the midst of packing up his home in Colorado, Gabriel said he looked forward to joining Shir Shalom, an appointment he called “beshert.”
He has noticed the Reform movement shifting in its understanding of spirituality, “and I think that’s why Shir Shalom hired me,” he said.
“Jews spend a lot of time tearing each other down for not being who they are, as opposed to seeing the diversity and exulting in that,” he said.
“To me, Jewish Renewal is a way of looking at Judaism and then sharing it so it’s accessible, so it includes the feminine face of God, so it makes Kabbalah accessible in user-friendly bites. It recognizes that other religions have great wisdom … and it uses art and music to celebrate life.”
Gabriel’s religious philosophy is grounded in the teachings of his mentor, Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, the founder of Jewish Renewal, who ordained him in 1990 after three years of study.
Between 1974 and January of this year, Zalman ordained some 112 Renewal rabbis.
Gabriel is Shir Shalom’s first Renewal rabbi and the first rabbi who will live in Sonoma. Rabbi Alan Greenbaum served there since 2005, but recently accepted a part-time position with B’nai Harim in Grass Valley, where he resides.
Reform synagogues that belong to the Union for Reform Judaism are not limited to considering Reform candidates. They are autonomous in their hiring decisions.
Gabriel is a father of two, grandfather of three, and life partner to Pamela Sachs, who will join him in Sonoma.
“After 17 years and 17 winters in Colorado, it was time for me to be somewhere else,” he said. “It was like coming home for me to a congregation that really wanted to be haimish; haimish with a chardonnay flavor.”