When Rabbi Jason Rosner first joined Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock, he was a member of the synagogue – not its spiritual leader. Initially, he didn’t tell anyone he was a rabbi.
But then, one Shabbat, he couldn’t hide it anymore. There was no rabbi, and the person who was supposed to lead services didn’t show up.
“I said, ‘I can lead it,’” Rosner told the Journal. “So they found out. Over time the relationship developed and I became the rabbi.”
Along with not having a rabbi, membership at Temple Beth Israel wasn’t growing; some people had left. Rosner made it his goal to turn that around.
“It became clear the synagogue could benefit from having a rabbi that could also serve as executive director, to work with the board to support and grow the membership,” he said.
The rabbi, who was ordained at Hebrew Union College – JIR (HUC) in Los Angeles and serves as a board member on the Sandra Caplan Community Beit Din, joined TBI in 2019. Since then, the synagogue’s membership has doubled. Much of the success comes from his personal connections with his congregants.
“I met with everyone I could [when I started],” he said. “I said, ‘Please rejoin. Here is our mission.’”
TBI is one of the oldest continuously operating synagogues in Los Angeles. It was incorporated in 1923, and the congregation moved into its current building in 1929. Though it’s not known as a Jewish neighborhood, Highland Park is full of young families. Rosner estimated that 50 to 60% of the members are millennials. The board president is 30 years old.
“Demographics work in our favor,” Rosner said. “I was at the right place at the right time, and I’ve worked hard together with a great team of lay leaders, clergy and staff to build this community. I really believe in its mission and history. My wife Noémie is involved as the rebbetzin on top of her job as a journalist. She has created many excellent programmatic ideas and worked together with me in organizing events.”
“I was at the right place at the right time, and I’ve worked hard together with a great team of lay leaders, clergy and staff to build this community.”
Rosner is an Orange County native who grew up going to a Reform synagogue, Temple Beth Sholom. When he attended California State University, Long Beach, he met Rabbi Yonah and Rebbetzin Rachel Bookstein, who were running the Hillel on campus.
“I was highly influenced by my mentors, [the Booksteins], as well as Rabbi Richard Levy Z”l,” he said. “I was inspired by [the Booksteins’] open home. I saw how dedicated they were.”
After he graduated from Cal State, Rosner went to grad school at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and got involved in the Jewish society there, running Shabbat dinners and becoming more connected to his Judaism.
It became clear to Rosner, who had been studying Medieval History, that rabbinic work was his path. Aside from HUC, he also studied at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem and Ohr Somayach, an Orthodox college of Judaic studies in Monsey, New York. Rosner wanted to learn about the different branches of Judaism, and ultimately he decided to become ordained as a Reform rabbi.
“My journey was to address what I thought was a core question: How does Judaism create community and connection between people?” he said.
In his time at TBI, Rosner has made the synagogue more sustainable, working on a garden on the grounds and installing solar panels. TBI also offered the CoPious Box, a box that featured organic produce from local farmers and was made available for TBI members as well as the community.
Above all, Rosner wants his congregants to feel as if they are part of a family. “I want to have an extended family living room,” he said. “Your family’s life spills over into this place. Your kids can run around here.”
By opening his door to members, he hopes he is cultivating meaningful connection.
“I spend a lot of time connecting with people one on one,” he said. “I am very available to members. There are no screeners or secretaries.”
Though Rosner is focused on his community, he also keeps his broader purpose in mind: to play his part in carrying on the beautiful Jewish tradition.
“A rabbi is a person who is the vessel for Jewish tradition,” he said. “It’s not about them personally or their ego. It’s that they are a vessel that holds the Jewish tradition from previous generations and adapts it for the current generation and passes it on. I’m really a representative of something that is larger than me. It’s my goal to remember that.”
Fast Takes with Jason Rosner
Jewish Journal: What is your favorite Jewish food?
Jason Rosner: Stuffed cabbage made with Beyond Meat and the msoki that Noémie makes for Passover.
JJ: What do you do on your day off?
JR: I go hiking in the San Gabriel Mountains.
JJ: What is your perfect Shabbat?
JR: A nice family style dinner at the synagogue, so everyone can have some really excellent food at a nicely set table and sing together. I lead services in the morning and spend the afternoon sitting in my hammock, reading a book and relaxing.