A man stands smiling, holding a guitar and wearing a talit
Rabbi Shalom Bochner is the new rabbi of B'nai Israel Jewish Center in Petaluma. (Photo/Shoshana Bochner-Percolating Pixels Photography)

Moving from Modesto, new rabbi in Petaluma wants to put shul on the ‘cool’ map

Updated Sept. 7

There’s a new rabbi in Petaluma, and he’s ready to rock.

Rabbi Shalom Bochner, who started full time at B’nai Israel Jewish Center in July after working part time since March, said one of his priorities will be forming an in-house “Jewish jam band” to play a mix of traditional tunes and modern music before Shabbat and on holidays.

Bochner, who plays guitar, is also the drummer for the Berkeley-based Jewish rock band the Ferris Wheels. But starting a band at B’nai Israel isn’t just about adding music to the cultural vibe. Rather it’s part of his plan to broaden the appeal beyond the congregation by launching new programs while maintaining traditions important to current worshippers.

“In Sonoma County where there are a lot of unaffiliated Jews, we’re much more likely to reach people where they’re at through music and food than through traditional modes of prayer,” Bochner said. “I want us to get on the map as the cool shul.”

B’nai Israel is an unaffiliated congregation that started around 1864 and formally incorporated in 1871. On its website, the congregation bills itself as the “oldest Jewish community between San Francisco and Portland.” Some of its members are descendants of the hundreds of Jewish immigrant families who settled in the area after World War I to work on chicken farms. While B’nai Israel goes back nearly 160 years, Petaluma has another congregation now too: the Chabad Jewish Center of Petaluma, which opened its doors in 2015.

B’nai Israel began looking for a new spiritual leader as Rabbi Ted Feldman, who served B’nai Israel for 17 years, retired in June 2022. In their search, members of the hiring committee made their decision largely based on a survey of all 110 member-families asking what they wanted in a rabbi. Bochner “ticked every box,” board member Dru West said.

Rabbi Shalom Bochner celebrating Shabbat with B'nai Israel's preschool kids. (Photo/Courtesy)
Rabbi Shalom Bochner celebrating Shabbat with B’nai Israel’s preschool kids. (Photo/Courtesy)

Jamie Bloom, the congregation’s president, calls the hiring a “new era” and an “opportunity for a fresh start.”

Bochner, who is 55, spent the past decade with Congregation Beth Shalom in Modesto. A Berkeley resident since 2008, he’d been splitting his time between his Berkeley home and his Modesto congregation since 2015.

Before that he worked at a number of Bay Area Jewish institutions, including Alma Retreats in Berkeley, Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Francisco, Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, Santa Cruz Hillel, Congregation Sinai in San Jose and Yavneh Day School in Los Gatos.

He and his wife, Shoshana Bochner, have three children in their blended family. They plan to move to Petaluma once their youngest graduates high school next year.

The rabbi grew up in Albany, New York, in a “close-knit, active Jewish community.” He was raised in a Conservative synagogue but calls himself a “Jewish Jew” when asked about his affiliation. His mother was one of his earliest and most influential Jewish educators.

“No matter what holiday was coming up, that was the most important one,” Bochner said. “And she took them on fully, always full of joy, always hands-on, particularly Shabbat.”

We’re much more likely to reach people where they’re at through music and food than through traditional modes of prayer.

After earning his master’s degree in education, Bochner worked in leadership positions at Jewish summer camps and youth programs before feeling a pull toward becoming a rabbi, which he saw as the “next logical step” for his career.

Bochner calls his rabbinical training unconventional. He didn’t enroll in a rabbinical school and instead studied for four years in different organizations, including the Renewal-affiliated Aleph Rabbinic Program. He then spent nine months studying in Israel before becoming ordained by the Orthodox-affiliated Yeshiva Pirchei Shoshanim in 2003.

Bochner has several priorities as he heads into his first High Holiday season at B’nai Israel. The first has been to meet one on one with every member family, which he’s already started doing. On some days, he meets with four families, each for about 30 minutes. Most meetings are at B’nai Israel, but others are over coffee or at people’s homes, as he introduces himself and learns about people’s interests and passions.

What has surprised him the most, he said, has been meeting people whose homes sit on the land their parents or grandparents bought to set up chicken farms.

“That’s not the typical California Jewish story,” he said.

During the High Holidays, Bochner wants people to think of the schedule “as a buffet” with a variety of spiritual, social and cultural programs for both members and nonmembers to choose from. For him, success will mean that people not only participate but also look forward to the next event.

“To me, it’s about creating a big tent of Judaism, even in a small town,” Bochner said. “And the High Holidays are the first chance to unveil that in a larger way.”

Updated Sept. 7 to correct the length of time the rabbi spent in Israel before ordination, and to clarify that he does not play instrumental music on Shabbat.   

Eric Schucht

J. correspondent