Rabbi Shalom Bochner began leading Congregation Beth Shalom on Wednesday and will shift to full-time service through the summer, with a goal of expanding the synagogue’s role in the community.
Congregants approved a two-year contract for Bochner in April. He has served the Modesto synagogue in a part-time capacity since 2013. A community installation is being planned for Aug. 16, celebrating the 93-year history of Congregation Beth Shalom in the Central Valley, as well as the new rabbi’s love of music.
Bochner has worked with the Modesto synagogue as a visiting rabbi part time for two years. Over the next few months, he and his wife and children will be establishing a home here. It has been three years since the synagogue has had a full-time rabbi.
“It’s really exciting, and a very healthy challenge being the only rabbi for the only synagogue in the region,” Bochner said, sitting in his office Tuesday. “This is the only synagogue from Stockton to the north, south to Fresno, west to Pleasanton and east as far as Colorado. Not that we have people from central Nevada coming to Saturday services, but we do have folks from Sonora, Livermore and a lot from Merced,” he said.
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Congregation Beth Shalom is affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, but Bochner said as the only rabbi around, he serves everyone. “We’re here to meet the needs of the entire community,” he said, which spans the devoutly religious to Jews who are nonbelievers and even neighbors who are not Jewish but have an interest.
“Judaism is not so much a religion as it it is an ethnic group,” he said. “You can’t be an atheist Catholic, but you can be an atheist and be Jewish,” he explained.
We have a mandate to make this world better. That’s not only a nice thing to do; we feel it’s a commandment.
Rabbi Shalom Bochner
That blood tie is being discovered by many whose families have lived for generations as Catholics, Bochner said. When the Spanish Inquisition forced Jews and Protestants alike to renounce their religion or be killed, many converted in name only or fled to South America, Mexico and later to the American Southwest. But most stayed true to their hidden identity, marrying descendents of other so-called crypto-Jews.
“Some believe Columbus himself was a crypto-Jew. He set sail the day the edict took effect,” he said, referring to Spain’s 1492 Edict of Expulsion.
“Hundreds of years later, there are good Catholics discovering they have this connection,” he said. “This isn’t unique to Modesto, but there is a large community here,” Bochner said, estimating two-thirds of the regulars at his Saturday service came late to Judaism after learning of their heritage.
“To be honest, it’s a struggle when you have a personal relationship with Jesus,” he said. Jesus is revered as a leader among Jews, but the line of distinction is that Jews do not worship him as a God. “So are you inspired by him, or worship him,” Bochner said. “For many people, that’s a confusing path.”
Regardless of each person’s choice, he said, those with Jewish blood are family. “Our role is to welcome them back. You can’t leave a family,” Bochner said.
As a religion, we love questions. We’re comfortable with that. We would never tell people what to feel, what to believe.
Rabbi Shalom Bochner
The role of the synagogue, as he sees it, is to serve as a center of Jewish life and an educational hub of Jewish culture. He hopes to expand holiday events and invite the larger Modesto community to join in things such as Latkes & Vodka, a winter celebration including the traditional potato pancake.
This year, Congregation Beth Shalom marked the holiday of Tu B’Shvat, the Hebrew New Year for Trees, with a donation of 12 trees to Cesar Chavez Park in west Modesto. It held Sunday concerts through the winter, ending in March with a celebration holiday of Jewish renewal.
Bochner led a prayer last month before a Stanislaus County Supervisors meeting, saying he likes that moment of reflection before deliberations begin, no matter which religious practitioner leads it.
He plans to bring groups on city art walks. Cafe Shalom will continue, as will the long-standing tradition of providing dinners on Dec. 24-25 to first responders.
“Shalom Bochner brings with him a kindness and understanding of people from 2 to 102,” said Doug Highiet, president of the congregation board.
“His enthusiasm over the past two years, his commitment to our youth in religious school and the fellowship he builds made him the obvious selection. Our entire congregation is excited about having his family becoming a part of the greater Modesto family and all of our lives for many years to come,” Highiet said via email.
Bochner comes from a background in Jewish education. He was an eighth-grade Judaic studies teacher at Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Francisco and the rabbinical director at Alma Retreats in Berkeley.
Before that, he was executive director, rabbi and program director at the Santa Cruz Hillel, serving the Jewish community of the university and working with youths at UC Santa Cruz and Yavneh Day School in Los Gatos. He also served as youth director at United Synagogue in Seattle and was a camp and youth director in upstate New York.
This synagogue has a small-town feel. There are about 200 Jewish families out of a town of, what, 200,000?
Rabbi Shalom Bochner
As Bochner sat in the synagogue office, he explained sacred objects there, including a 300-year-old Torah scroll about one-eighth the size of the standard scrolls used at services. “It’s older than our country. Clearly there’s a story there,” he said, peering closely at the tiny lettering.
One of the large scrolls used at Congregation Beth Shalom was undergoing repair Tuesday.
Torah scrolls comprise the five scrolls of Moses, written right to left in Hebrew, without a single vowel. It takes a year to write them, using a feather quill and blackest ink created by only a few families drawing on an ancient recipe, explained Rabbi Levi Selwyn of Miami, the sofer doing the repair.
It was a rare privilege to have a sofer in town, Bochner said.
Compared to the ethnic density of the New York town where he grew up, he said, “It takes an effort here, to be Jewish.” For example, kosher food can only be found in a section of a few supermarkets. For large gatherings, the synagogue has to bring meat in from the Bay Area or Los Angeles.
“There’s definitely a sense – you’re on the frontier,” he said.
Congregation Beth Shalom is hosting a number of events, open to all, at the synagogue, 1705 Sherwood Ave., Modesto.
- INSTALLATION: 1 p.m. Aug. 16. Installation of Rabbi Shalom Bochner will include music, refreshments and the 93-year history of the congregation in Modesto. No cost.
- CANTOR ARIEL WOLPE: 11 a.m. July 19. Wolpe will give a talk titled “When the Angel of Death Took the Wrong Person.” She will also co-lead Shabbat services at 7 p.m. July 17 and 10 a.m. July 18. No cost.
- SUNDAY CONCERTS return Sept. 27, all starting at 3 p.m. Tickets: $20 adults, $15 seniors, $7 children. Lineup includes “Jewish Jamming” by Bochner and friends Oct. 18. See http://sundaysatcbs.com for complete listing.
Find more at www.cbsmodesto.org.