One of Congregation Beth Shalom’s rabbis had answers to all the tough questions Sunday, from inquiries on Jewish history and the differences between Judaism and Christianity to becoming a Jewish convert and advice on sightseeing in Israel.
Some of the questions were not so tough: “Are you the rabbi?”
He is. Rabbi Shalom Bochner came up with the idea to add an “Ask the Rabbi” booth to the 44th annual Cafe Shalom, a Jewish cultural, music and arts festival held each year at Modesto’s only synagogue.
“I pictured Lucy from the “Peanuts” (comic strip) except I’m not going to charge 5 cents,” Bochner said. “I thought ‘How can I help?’ Here’s a way that I can contribute if someone wanted a chance to meet me or if they have a question. Jews love questions; we are very comfortable with questions.”
One person went straight for the “meaning of life” question, to which Bochner was quick to answer, “The meaning of life is to figure out the meaning of life. Or it’s 42.” The latter is a “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” reference.
When away from his booth, Bochner entertained festivalgoers with music and tours of the synagogue.
He read from the Torah, sampled the sounds of the shofar – an instrument made from a ram’s horn – and explained Jewish services and the history of the religion, both worldwide and locally.
Congregation Beth Shalom has been in Modesto for 50 years, but Jewish roots in the city date to the early 1900s, Bochner said.
“In a city of 200,000, there are maybe 200 Jewish families,” he said. “It’s a very small percentage of the community, and Jews are used to that. A third of the world is Christian, one fifth is Muslim, just one third of 1 percent of the world is Jewish. This is not just a synagogue; it’s really a Jewish community center. It’s here for cultural reasons, and family reasons, and community reasons, and this event shows that more than anything.”
Cafe Shalom featured traditional Jewish fare, including homemade baked goods like baklava, rugelach and challah, which sold out hours before the festivities ended.
The proceeds from the festival benefit education and activities for the congregation’s youth studying for bar and bat mitzvahs.