50 rabbis for 50 states: Podcaster gives up day job to record clergy across USA
Interview'I'm seeing the different ways of expressing Jewishness'

50 rabbis for 50 states: Podcaster gives up day job to record clergy across USA

27-year-old Justin Regan put his local public radio career on hold to embrace his religious identity as never before in an ongoing series on American Jewry

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

'American Rabbi Project' podcaster Justin Regan at work. (Courtesy)
'American Rabbi Project' podcaster Justin Regan at work. (Courtesy)

In August 2018, Justin Regan got in his car and hit the open road for four months. The 27 year old was Regan was on the hunt for rabbis — specifically, to interview one in every American state.

A former host and reporter for local public radio in Flagstaff, Arizona, Regan has compiled his illuminating conversations into a podcast titled, “American Rabbi Project.” His initial 14,000-mile (roughly 22,500 kilometer) trip yielded interviews with 16 rabbis, and he plans to continue the project with more excursions around the United States until the effort is complete.

Unfortunately the coronavirus pandemic has thrown a wrench into the works, and Regan — like everyone else —  is currently stuck at home for the indefinite future. In the meantime, he is using his time in isolation to turn material already recorded into new episodes, including a “behind the scenes” one.

“I am committed to seeing this through,” Regan told The Times of Israel. “I plan to do all the interviews in person and reach Jewish communities all over the country, including in Alaska and Hawaii.”

Regan doesn’t just do the reporting for the free podcast, but also single-handedly writes and produces it. He is focusing only on this, forgoing other employment opportunities for now. (He is, however, seeking support through a crowdfunding campaign.)

The project evolved as Regan met more rabbis and visited more communities, some of them in off-the-beaten-track or historical locations. He managed to visit three of the country’s five synagogues that predate US independence — in Philadelphia, Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina.

The podcaster reported that for the most part the rabbis were responsive to his interview requests.

Rabbi Jan Salzman at Congregation Ruach haMaqom in Burlington, Vermont. (Justin Regan)

“A high percentage agreed to do it. Rabbis love to talk and share their knowledge. Rabbis are teachers, after all,” he said.

Regan expected the interviews to focus on subjects such as assimilation, interfaith marriage, increased anti-Semitism, and American Jewish exceptionalism. These topics were covered, but in response to the open-ended questions posed by Regan, the rabbis enriched the conversations with additional insights.

“I learned more and more as I went on and built on themes from one rabbi to another,” Regan said.

Among the subjects added into the mix were local Jewish history, the Jewish LGBTQ experience, as well as the cultural diversity within the American Jewish community, of which Regan said he had not been previously aware.

“When Justin reached out, I was impressed with the narrative history that he was trying to create for listeners. As one of the few rabbis in West Virginia, I am often asked to talk about the American Jewish experience found both in small communities and our unique area in Appalachia. Justin’s podcast seemed both natural and praiseworthy,” said Rabbi Victor Urecki of B’nai Jacob Synagogue in Charleston.

Rabbi Victor Urecki sitting amidst his massive comic book collection. (Marilyn Urecki)

“Justin was warm and engaging. He asked thoughtful questions and allowed me the opportunity to both discuss the challenges and the joy of being a longtime spiritual leader in this area,” said Urecki, who made a point of showing Regan his enormous comic book and memorabilia collection. (The rabbi shares the very Jewish reason for his superhero obsession in the podcast.)

Rabbi Jan Salzman, founder and spiritual leader of Ruach haMaqom, a recently established congregation in Burlington, Vermont, welcomed the chance to share with listeners how she personally reconnected with Judaism later in life through the Jewish Renewal movement — an outgrowth of various strands of historical and contemporary Jewish life, including hasidism, progressivism, feminism and ecology.

“Having a chance to be recognized as a new organization was considered an important part of our efforts, and so being interviewed… recognized that Ruach haMaqom was becoming ‘real,'” Salzman said.

Rabbi Haim Ovadia (Justin Regan)

Maryland-based Rabbi Haim Ovadia is a podcaster himself. He praised Regan’s talents for distilling key ideas from interviews, and for taking a genuine interest in the religious leaders who work with Jewish communities all over the US. The Israeli-born rabbi is an Academy for Jewish Religion faculty member who speaks about the need for the modernization of halacha (Jewish law) and the preservation of Sephardic culture.

“I feel that many people are not aware of the diversity of the communities and the rabbis, and of the challenges rabbis are facing, and I therefore think that Justin’s project is extremely important,” Ovadia said.

Although Regan set out in search of rabbis with different stories to tell, he was also in many ways on a personal journey of Jewish identity. Born and raised in the Los Angeles area in an interfaith family headed by an Ashkenazi Jewish mother and Irish-Italian Catholic father, Regan grew up in a relatively secular environment.

“We went to both church and synagogue twice a year and celebrated holidays with both sides of the family. In December we had a [menorah] and Santa,” he said.

Regan had what he characterized as “a drive-by bar mitzvah” during a December 2013 Birthright Israel trip. “That’s how I think of it, because I didn’t put the work into it,” he said.

Regan said he enjoyed that only trip to Israel so far, and that he hopes to return to the Jewish state at some point in the future. In the meantime, he is learning to read Hebrew.

Adas Israel Congregation’s Rabbi Gil Steinlauf greeting President Obama, May 22, 2015. (Ron Sachs/via JTA)

Listeners from North America, Israel, Australia, Spain, Germany and other countries are tuning in to episodes of “American Rabbi Project.”

Jessa Coleman, 27, lives in Washington, DC, and works in clean energy financing. A Roman Catholic, she started listening to the podcast because of her interest in the Abrahamic faiths.

“I have most enjoyed learning about the different branches of the Jewish faith and how they differ, as well as about the history of Judaism in America. I was particularly fascinated by the episode on Judaism in South Carolina and the relations among Jews, Protestants and Catholics in that community,” Coleman said.

“I also loved the episode about the Jew [Rabbi Albert Gabbai of Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia] who emigrated to the US from Egypt. The individual in question has had a challenging life, and I found myself caught up thinking about how his opinions have been nuanced by his experiences and layers of identity and hardship,” she said.

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers leads a gathering in Hanukkah songs after lighting a menorah outside the Tree of Life Synagogue on the first night of Hanukkah, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018 in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. A gunman shot and killed 11 people while they worshipped Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018 at the temple. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Chef and restaurant owner Emily Karlovitz Perry, 31, listens from her home in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. She heard about the podcast from Regan’s girlfriend, who is studying for a masters degree in Jewish community building. Having grown up in the US but now living in Canada, Perry said the content of the episodes have made her reflect on the differences between American and Canadian Jewry.

Regan recalled the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in October 2018 as a pivotal point in his project. He was in Washington, DC, at the time and went to a havdalah vigil that evening in front of the White House.

“The next day I was scheduled to interview Rabbi Gil Steinlauf [who made headlines in 2014 when he, as the married senior rabbi at the Conservative-affiliated Adas Israel Congregation, came out as gay] and there was a real rawness, a very powerful response to what had happened in our conversation,” Regan said.

“This gave real purpose to the podcast and helped me get on with it, despite the difficulties of being on the road alone for so long,” he said.

Justin Regan (courtesy)

Staying put for now in Los Angeles as he produces more episodes from interviews he’s already conducted, Regan reflected on how much he has learned thus far. While he has identified as a member of the Jewish community for quite some time, he feels he is now engaging more deeply and critically with what it means to be an American Jew.

“I am getting the pulse of how various and wide the community is and of the different ways there are to express Jewishness. It’s giving me the opportunity to decide what I connect to,” Regan said.

Producing a podcast on his own has enabled Regan to grow professionally, and traveling around the country for months has helped him gain confidence as a person.

“Not to mention that I’ve become a much better driver,” he said.

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