September 25, 2018

Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback builds spirituality from the ground up

When Hamas was firing rockets at Israel in 2014, Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback felt compelled to visit the Jewish homeland. He told his wife, Jacqueline Hantgan, he had to go, and he asked his then-boss, Rabbi Eli Herscher, for permission. He then embarked on what he described as a one-man solidarity mission to Israel.

It’s this type of passion that has served Zweiback, 47, who made aliyah and holds dual citizenship, well over the years as he has navigated his way through a career in the Jewish world from song leader at Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Gindling Hilltop Camp to his current position as senior rabbi at Stephen Wise Temple, one of the largest Reform congregations in North America.

Since joining the temple in 2012 and becoming senior rabbi in 2015, Zweiback has played a critical role in the growth of one of the largest and most diverse Reform synagogues in the United States. Not only has membership increased to 2,000 families in recent years, so has the temple’s physical footprint, with a new multipurpose pavilion set to open this fall.

“We’re big,” Zweiback said in a recent interview. “I don’t think we’re the largest in North America, but it’s a big operation, it’s a big synagogue, and it’s one of the things that makes it so invigorating, because it’s a constant hive of activity.”

Zweiback, who was born in Colorado Springs, Colo., and raised in Omaha, Neb., served as the temple’s head of school for three years, drawing on a master’s degree in Jewish education from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and his experience as a senior educator of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, from 1998-2009.

He rose to senior rabbi after the retirement of Rabbi Eli Herscher, a member of the Stephen Wise clergy for 40 years, his entire rabbinic career. That made Zweiback only the third senior rabbi in the history of the synagogue, which was founded in 1964 by Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin.

Experienced in Jewish education and in the pastoral demands of the pulpit, he has drawn on his passions for Israel, education and music, attempting to live up to the accomplishments of his predecessors.

Zweiback felt the calling to pursue the rabbinate during his sophomore year at Princeton University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in religion. After graduation, he attended HUC-JIR, where he was ordained in 1998. After working at the congregation in Los Altos Hills, he moved to Israel to serve as director of the year-in-Israel program for HUC-JIR.

When he returned to the U.S. in 2012, a relationship he’d cultivated with a mentor, HUC-JIR professor Michael Zeldin, son of the Stephen Wise Temple founder, led to him joining the staff at the temple.

Zweiback, who is self-taught on guitar and piano, spent his youth writing songs and performing them in front of his parents, using the fireplace poker as a microphone. Today, he continues to pursue his love of music as a member of the Jewish contemporary band Mah Tovu, which features Zweiback on vocals and guitar, and Leo Baeck Temple Rabbi Ken Chasen on keyboard. The group’s Jewish-camp and youth-circuit hit, “Pharaoh, Pharaoh,” parodies the 1960s Kingsmen tune, “Louie Louie.”

Zweiback’s earliest success in music occurred years ago at Gindling Hilltop Camp. When Wilshire Boulevard Temple Rabbi Steven Leder asked him to craft a melody to accompany the Jewish prayer Hashkiveinu Adonai Eloheinu, he was all too happy to give it a shot.

“It was the first real Jewish composition I did, and when I did it, it tumbled out of me,” Zweiback said. “Ten minutes later, I came back to him and said, ‘What about this?’ He said, ‘Great, we’ll do it tomorrow night!’ We tried it at camp, and it’s actually, of anything I’ve ever written, by far the most widely done.”

Indeed, Zweiback’s version of the song is sung at Jewish camps across the country. In fact, one of his three children was at camp a few years ago where the campers were singing his song. His daughter “told her cabinmates, ‘My dad wrote that melody,’ and they were like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ ”

Zweiback would talk music all day, but the job of senior rabbi poses greater challenges, including enrollment issues in the temple’s day school and membership in the synagogue, where all day school families are required to be members.

Metuka Benjamin, president of Milken Community Schools, was among the founders of Stephen Wise Temple’s education system. She said at the Stephen Wise Temple schools, known as Wise School, there are fewer classes per grade than there used to be for kindergarten through sixth grade, a problem predating Zweiback. About 10 years ago, each grade had six classes. Today there are about two classes per grade, she said, attributing the decline to the economy, families’ reluctance to pay high tuition and other issues, which she declined to identify.

Wise School is a preschool, kindergarten and elementary school. Milken Community Schools, which Stephen Wise Temple was affiliated with until 2012, is a pluralistic middle school and high school.

Amy Asin, vice president and director of Union for Reform Judaism Strengthening Congregations, said Stephen Wise has managed to buck the trend of declining membership due to its willingness to provide financial aid and offer its members affordable options.

Zweiback said the synagogue went through declining membership caused by the 2008 recession, the 2011 “Carmageddon” upgrades of the 405 Freeway that affected people’s  drives to the Bel Air campus on Mulholland Drive, and the institution’s separation from Milken Community Schools.

But now, Zweiback said, membership is increasing.

“Our membership is steady and our school is growing, which is great,” he said. The temple schools, which have 510 students, continue to serve as a feeder for Milken Community Schools.

When not focused on membership, Zweiback is cultivating relationships with community members.

“One of the most rewarding aspects of what I do is teaching Torah and trying to find ways to understand it more deeply and help it connect to people in the lives they live today,” he said. “Another classic term for a rabbi is a haver. So, to me, that encompasses all of the ways in which I connect with people, the community I get to be a part of. And I love the Stephen Wise Temple community in its diversity.”

Zweiback works closely with Tami Weiser, head of school at Wise School. She said initiatives at the temple, including Wise YAD, its young adults division, and a policy of the synagogue that provides a free yearlong membership to couples who marry at the synagogue, have helped engage millennials. In 2016, the synagogue hired Cantor Emma Lutz, who was ordained in 2016 at the HUC-JIR cantorial school, and she has helped with this effort, Weiser said.

“I really think, with Yoshi and his young clergy, they are being very intentional about reaching that demographic,” Weiser said.

The Stephen Wise campus also is growing as construction nears completion of its Katz Family Pavilion. The $9 million structure will house the school’s first gymnasium and provide space for assemblies, concerts and plays. Also nearly finished is an outdoor space,  known as the Shalom Garden, that will honor Herscher’s four decades of service to the community.

“There was a wonderful outpouring from the entire community to honor him, and the project itself is a testimony to Rabbi Herscher’s vision,” Zweiback said. “It’s been really rewarding for me to support and partner with him in realizing the project because we started the project before he retired and we’ll finish it after his retirement.”

For Zweiback, the new facilities are another way of connecting people of all backgrounds to Judaism at Stephen Wise Temple.

“We are one of the most diverse synagogues in North America, and part of my vision is we will continue to nurture and nourish that diversity and celebrate it, finding ways to engage congregants of all ages more deeply in their Judaism, making synagogue life stickier,” he said.

“I think about this place as what our architect calls a ‘destination of desire,’ a place where the physical place, and the energy of the place, and what you do in this place is so inspiring that people want to be there all the time.”