Napa synagogue picks rabbi with passion for social issues

It’s a long way from Darfur to Napa. Yet that is the road traveled by Rabbi Lee Bycel, a globetrotting social activist recently named spiritual leader of Napa’s Congregation Beth Shalom. He assumes his new post April 1.

Bycel won’t have to give up social action to become a pulpit rabbi. He will commute from his Kensington home to serve the Reform congregation two weekends per month and on Jewish holidays, as well as officiating at lifecycle events. The rest of the time, he is free to repair the world.

Bycel says Beth Shalom is a good fit for him.

“I’ve always loved small communities, how they function and the necessity of congregants being very involved,” says the rabbi, who years ago served congregations in towns including Visalia, Calif.; Juneau, Alaska; and Ogden, Utah. “For me [the synagogue] is the center of Jewish life.”

Rabbi Lee Bycel

Founded in 1953, Congregation Beth Shalom of Napa Valley boasts a membership of 135 families, and has been growing despite having no permanent rabbi for nearly two years.

Bycel, 63, has enjoyed a distinguished rabbinic career, much of it working for major Jewish institutions. He served 15 years as dean of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, was president of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley and also was a  professor of world religions at the Claremont School of Theology.

His focus on social justice led him to become the Western regional executive director of American Jewish World Service. Bycel also made several International medical Corps-sponsored trips to Chad, South Sudan and Darfur to help ameliorate the refugee crises there.

More recently, he traveled to Haiti to assist in the post-earthquake rebuilding. Closer to home, the Los Angeles native previously served as president of the L.A. Commission on Human Relations, and he has led scores of leadership seminars around the country.

Bycel says the congregants at Beth Shalom share his passion for social action and want him to keep fighting the good fight.

“It’s a very diverse congregation,” he says, “inclusive and with a commitment to social justice. They are mindful of the larger issues in Napa, and they see the interrelatedness of the Bay Area and what goes on domestically and internationally.”

Beth Shalom congregants look forward to Bycel taking the bimah. “We feel so lucky,” said president Ellyn Elson. “His varied experience within the rabbinic community and his work on social action and interfaith projects made the decision to have him join us very easy.”

In his first weeks on the job, Bycel hopes to get acquainted with Beth Shalom congregants, a task he feels he can do even if he lives nearly 40 miles away.

“Being there Thursdays through Sundays, and every other Wednesday, one gets to know a community,” he says. “One thing we’re setting up are lunches and dinners at congregants’ homes. I like to get to know people in small groups, not just hearing me speak on a Friday nights.”

He also will lead the congregation’s Torah study group on the Shabbat mornings when he’s there.

“The rabbi is a communicator of an incredible tradition that really speaks to our world today,” he adds. “The kind of synagogue I want to be a part of is one that feels safe, where people explore their identity, ask questions, express innermost doubts and join together in a quest for meaning, making sense of a turbulent world.”

Having seen that turbulence up close, Bycel is mindful of the bumper sticker truism: Think globally, act locally.

“Spending time in a refugee camp in Chad is very different,” he says, comparing it with life as a congregational rabbi, “but I feel the Jewish community is yearning for places where we can look at what matters in our life.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.