Music fuels long journey from N.Y. to Sonoma bimah

As a rebellious teenager in New York, Bella Bogart never imagined she would one day build a career as a rabbi in California. Having grown up in a Modern Orthodox family that had her spending “half her life” in shul, she hoped her life’s work might revolve around her passion: music.

Bella Bogart

Ironically, after moving away from Judaism as a young adult, music is what brought her back.

“That was always my connection,” said Bogart, 52, who took over as the spiritual leader at Reform Congregation Shir Shalom in Sonoma just about a year ago. “The first really strong spiritual feeling I remember having was singing in synagogue.”

As a child, she and her father (also known for his beautiful voice) would harmonize together across the mechitza in synagogue. As a teen, she recorded her first original songs.

In 1982, after attending Rutgers University — and after a few years of not considering herself a very religious Jew — Bogart took a position as a cantor at Ramat Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue in South Florida.

“I didn’t think of it as a calling so much as it was a job,” she says, admitting that she had to look up “Reconstructionist” in the dictionary. She wound up staying on 18 years.

“It was so wonderful to come back to a Judaism to which I could really relate,” she said, noting that she had often felt there was “no place” for her as a woman in the Orthodox Judaism she grew up with. The Broward County congregation grew substantially during her tenure there, from 65 families to more than 400; Bogart married and had three children. She also fell in love with being in synagogue again.

In 2000, after a divorce, “Cantor Bella” (as she was known then) moved to California with her children and enrolled as a rabbinic student in the ALEPH ordination program for Jewish Renewal leaders. She began serving as the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Israel, an unaffiliated synagogue in Vallejo, and then as cantor and educator at Congregation Beth Sholom in Napa.

“It was a tremendous learning curve,” Bogart said of her time at B’nai Israel in Solano County. “Being at the helm of the only [independent] synagogue in a county, when I’m used to New York, Broward County — places where you can’t walk one block without falling over a synagogue — it was about learning how to serve a community where this [synagogue] is it. It was learning to care for a really diverse group of Jews, who all have different reasons for being there.”

Bogart and her husband, Dillon Walsh, married in June 2008, and between them have six adult children and seven grandchildren. They live in Benicia, about a 50-minute drive from Shir Shalom, where she began as a cantor (for the High Holy Days in 2009) and took over as rabbi in 2010 after the current rabbi left.

Although she is not ordained yet, that will change on Aug. 27, when she will be ordained as a “Rabbi and Spiritual Leader in Liberal Jewish Traditions” by the Jewish Spiritual Leadership Institute in New York City. She’s also a member of OHALAH, the Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal.

And when she completes the ALEPH program, she will receive a second rabbinic ordination.

She’s also at work on her seventh album. After a brief foray into pop music for her 45th birthday seven years ago (“Some people buy themselves a red Corvette, I put out one pop CD — it was huge fun!”), Bogart now sings and plays exclusively Jewish music.

She’s able to incorporate her love of music into her services, singing and playing guitar at almost every one. “My hope is that it uplifts people, that it helps others connect,” she said.

In the year she’s been with Shir Shalom, Bogart said her job has been “a joy.” The synagogue, which serves about 100 families and shares sanctuary space with the First Congregational Church, serves as a community center for a diverse group of Jews who have worked together for some 10 years to build up the local Jewish community.

“They’re amazing,” Bogart said. “They’re so inclusive and welcoming and good at taking care of each other. So many people there are looking for so many different things, and still happy to serve the community together. Their overriding strength is their compassion.”

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.