Beth Ams guitar-strumming rabbi gets a new gig in Israel

Rabbi Josh Zweiback has landed a gig that just might be more exciting than making a hit record with his band, Mah Tovu.  

Zweiback recently was named director of the Year-in-Israel program at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem — the first time a rabbi not previously living in Israel was hired for the position, he noted.

The move from Palo Alto to Israel closes out Zweiback’s 11 years of service at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.   

As of July 1, the 39-year-old will be tasked with helping a new crop of students from HUC-JIR campuses in North America and Europe “forge lifelong connections to Israel and the Jewish people.”

“It’s a rabbinic dream to help train cantors, educators and rabbis in Jerusalem, and to continue my own studies,” said Zweiback, who plans to pursue his Ph.D. in Jewish education.

He’ll work alongside HUC-JIR faculty to ensure students learn Hebrew and brush up on their knowledge of Jewish faith, history and values — and the challenges facing contemporary Jewish identity worldwide.

In some ways, Zweiback said, his new position is quite different from his former post at Beth Am, where his focus was on adult education. For instance, he’ll be engaging 50 to 60 students instead of nearly 1,500 families.

Yet at the core, the two jobs are “absolutely the same,” he said. “My goal is to partner with others in creating a vibrant Jewish life that’s filled with joy, opportunities for engagement and a deep sense of connection.”

The spirit of innovation and willingness to experiment with educational programming initially attracted Zweiback to the Reform synagogue.

And he took full advantage, continuously adding to Beth Am’s diverse menu of programs. Zweiback introduced Tizmoret, a monthly Shabbat service backed by a full band; Tzavta, a family b’nai mitzvah enrichment series; and Hadracha, a teacher training initiative.

Beth Am Rabbi Janet Marder said Zweiback will be deeply missed and long remembered.  “He has been a powerful, inspiring teacher who has brought a great sense of joy and vibrancy to every aspect of life at Beth Am.

“We have been blessed to have a rabbi of his abundant gifts and talents as part of our community for so many years.”

Zweiback often collaborated with colleagues outside the synagogue, such as the Peninsula Night of Jewish Unity, which attracts more than 500 people for an evening of learning.

His strong ties to such institutions are due in part to his wife, Jacqueline Hantgan, a former director of community events at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto and a teacher at South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale.   

The couple met in Israel in 1992. 

“We fell in love there,” Zweiback said. “We’ve long thought about what we’d do if we had the chance to get back to Israel full-time. This opportunity came along, and it was unique — not the kind that comes along every day.”

Trips back to the U.S. will allow Zweiback to visit family and friends, and maintain his volunteer position as executive director of Kavod, the nonprofit he founded in 1993 which, to date, has distributed nearly $900,000 to those in need.

As for the band, he’ll continue rocking with Mah Tovu, though his guitar riffs will have to be uploaded to MP3s, rather than played in person. “We’ll just be more international,” Zweiback said. “I look forward to finding a lot of music opportunities in Jerusalem.”    

Raised in Omaha, Neb., and ordained by Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, Zweiback said, “It’s been an amazing 11 years at Beth Am and in the Bay Area. I really love this Jewish community, and the ways in which the rabbis work together and synagogues partner … I hope to maintain those connections with the local community.”