N.Y. Director-turned-rabbi Wants to Take Masorti Mainstream

As the newly hired rabbi of Kehillat Magen Avraham, Sadoff led a mostly sabra community in prayer and delivered his sermon - about how to cope with major life transitions - in fluent if slightly accented Hebrew.

Ten years ago, Yonatan Sadoff was working as a video director and editor in New York, making commercials for products like Listerine mouthwash. This Rosh Hashanah, he directed a different kind of production: Rosh Hashanah services at a Masorti/Conservative synagogue in Omer on the outskirts of Be'er Sheva.

As the newly hired rabbi of Kehillat Magen Avraham, Sadoff led a mostly sabra community in prayer and delivered his sermon - about how to cope with major life transitions - in fluent if slightly accented Hebrew.

"I was surprised that they would want an Anglo rabbi," Sadoff, 42, said this week in an interview at the house he recently moved into on a quiet, tree-lined street in Omer, a town of about 8,000 people. "I think it says a lot about who they are that they don't discriminate in that way."

Roxana Golan, chairwoman of the congregation, said the hiring committee chose Sadoff to replace Rabbi Gil Nativ, who moved to Warsaw, because of his outgoing personality. "I think that some people would prefer a native Hebrew speaker who speaks at a very high level, but what really matters is the person and what he has to say," Golan said.

Sadoff's journey to the bimah at Magen Avraham, which is one of the Masorti movement's flagship synagogues, with about 150 families, is worthy of its own Hollywood treatment.

After earning a film degree at the New York Film Academy and working for several years at the advertising agency J. Walter Thompson as the in-house video editor, he felt a strong desire to deepen his knowledge of Jewish thought and practice. So he decided to take a yearlong "sabbatical" from his job and study at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

Then a new reality set in. His flight to Israel, which was scheduled to leave from New York's John F. Kennedy airport on September 11, 2001, was canceled. Sadoff said he spent a "depressing" Rosh Hashanah with family on Long Island and arrived in Israel in time for Yom Kippur, only to find himself caught up in the second intifada. He lost a friend in the 2002 terrorist bombing at the Frank Sinatra student center on the campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Sadoff returned to New York after his year of study but soon realized that directing was not his calling. Then, through the generosity of a relative, he moved back to Israel and began studying Hebrew and Torah intensively before enrolling at the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem in 2003. He was the only non-native Hebrew speaker in his class.

At first, he insists, he had no intentions of becoming a practicing rabbi. "I wanted to go back into television and produce a children's television show with Jewish themes and values," he said, describing the concept as a kind of Jewish Sesame Street.

However, the contrast between the two worlds he inhabited - entertainment and spiritual enlightenment - could not have been starker. "There were just no egos in that place," he said of Schechter. "I came from a world of nothing but 'me, me, me.' It was a whole different lifestyle, but it really suited me."

Sadoff was ordained in December 2008 and assisted his chevruta partner, Rabbi Yoav Ende, in the revitalization of Jewish life and learning at Kibbutz Hannaton, near Nazareth.

However, it was while serving as the assistant rabbi at Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minnetonka, Minnesota (near where he grew up ) that he realized he was "made to do this." He learned about the job opening at Magen Avraham because the two are longtime sister synagogues.

Founded in 1973 by a group of American and Canadian immigrants and native-born Israelis, Magen Avraham represented an alternative for those Ashkenazi Jews who felt out of place at the single Moroccan-Sephardic synagogue in Omer. The first High Holy Day services were held in the auditorium of the city's school and were interrupted by the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. The congregation moved to its current building in 1980 and recently expanded to accommodate its growing YULA after-school program for elementary school children.

There were only a handful of Conservative congregations in Israel when Magen Avraham was established, according to Rabbi Michael Graetz, 72, who immigrated to Israel from Lincoln, Nebraska, and served as the synagogue's first rabbi from 1979 until he retired in 2004.

According to Graetz, these congregations helped the new immigrants acculturate to Israeli society. "Most of them had grown up in Conservative congregations, so they felt very much at home," he said. "In many ways it helped them overcome the strangeness of being an [immigrant]." Today there are approximately 65 Conservative congregations in Israel, he said.

From the start, Magen Avraham embraced an egalitarian approach to Jewish practice, even though it was unfamiliar to the native Israeli population. "It was something altogether new to the people, the idea of families sitting together," said Jesse Shapiro, 82, a founding member from Minneapolis. "I would say it took maybe three years before we had women participating in the service."

Sadoff said his goals for his tenure at Magen Avraham include ensuring a smooth transition from the founders to the next generation and raising awareness about Conservative Judaism through direct engagement with the local communities. Last week, for example, he spoke about the significance of Rosh Hashanah and blew the shofar for Jewish and Muslim students at the Degania bilingual school in Be'er Sheva.

He said he also plans to be an active participant in the struggle for equal rights and privileges for non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. "We have to become mainstream," he said. "We have to gain official recognition."

As for his personal life, the unmarried rabbi said he would also like to start a family. Golan, the congregation's chair, promised that a match would be made: "We will find someone for him, with his approval of course."