Bycel smiling and talking
Rabbi Lee Bycel will soon retire from his pulpit at Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa. (Photo/file)

Retiring from Napa pulpit, social justice rabbi will continue activism

Rabbi Lee Bycel is known around the Bay Area for his devotion to international social justice causes. But at Beth Shalom in Napa, where he has spent the last five years, he is known as the rabbi who arrived at a trying time in the life of the congregation and helped reunify and rebuild it.

When Bycel took over on a part-time basis in 2012, Beth Shalom had been without a rabbi for two years. When he leaves in June, his position will be filled by a full-time rabbi — Niles Goldstein, who happens to be one of Bycel’s former students.

“They had had a troubled past, a challenging decade,” Bycel said. “When I came here 5½ years ago, that was my goal: How do we bring this community together? It had gone through some challenges.”

The congregation’s membership, which had dropped at one point to 105 families, was about 135 families when Bycel arrived. It’s now close to 200 families. He also oversaw a major temple renovation in 2014.

“There were rifts in the congregation and he was very good at bringing people in and seeing if he could smooth over some of those things,” said Ellyn Elson, who was congregation president when Bycel was hired and begins another term as president on June 1. “He really has a knack for getting people to speak respectfully to one another, and I think in a lot of synagogues that doesn’t really happen.”

The new building
Congregation Beth Shalom’s current building was built during Lee Bycel’s tenure. (Photo/

Bycel, an adjunct professor of Jewish studies and social justice at the University of San Francisco and a senior moderator of leadership seminars at the Washington-based Aspen Institute, plans to give more energy to his three grandchildren while continuing his social activism after leaving Beth Shalom.

A former Western region executive director for American Jewish World Service, he focused on refugee issues, traveling to Africa as a senior adviser for the International Medical Corps, and to Haiti after that nation’s 2010 earthquake. He’s writing a book on refugees based in part on interviews he conducted last summer in Amsterdam and Berlin.

Appointed to the council of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2014, Bycel brought his social justice values to the pulpit as well, giving sermons on issues such as mental health and the right to die.

Though Beth Shalom congregants appreciated his interest in social justice and gave him the flexibility to continue his outside activities, Bycel said he realized that “that life is finite, and it’s time to move on.”

“I feel like I’ve done a lot here in Napa, and at 68 I’m ready to retire from the congregational rabbinate,” he said. “It’s really a consuming position.”

He really has a knack for getting people to speak respectfully to one another, and I think in a lot of synagogues that doesn’t really happen.

Goldstein, 51, who was a student at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles a quarter-century ago during Bycel’s 15-year tenure as dean of the rabbinic school there, said he also is passionate about social justice but will prioritize getting to know his new congregation.

Goldstein, who will be moving to Napa from Chicago, founded the New Shul in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1999 and in 11 years built it up from a few dozen members to a congregation of about 200 families.

“I’m going to be living right there in the community, my hands are going to be full getting to know people in the congregation,” he said. “My focus is going to be on spirituality, theology and personal growth.”

Bycel, who was an associate rabbi at San Rafael’s Congregation Rodef Sholom from 1979 to 1982, will be honored by Beth Shalom at a May 20 gala.

“He did the heavy lifting for the funding to build our new synagogue. And we’ll remember him for his great interpretation of Torah study. He really taught us how to read the Torah and understand it and make it come alive for us,” Elson said.

“He’s also going to be remembered for what he did in the interfaith community and what he did in the community at large in Napa.”

That sense of working to educate the community on social justice issues is what Bycel wants people both inside and outside the Beth Shalom congregation to remember.

Said Bycel, “I hope people will say, Lee made a difference, Lee cared about us, Lee uplifted this community, and we applaud his future endeavors and what he is passionate about.”

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.