When Rabbi Niles Goldstein arrived in Napa last summer to assume leadership of Congregation Beth Shalom, one of the first things he did was to give each member of his congregation a copy of his book “Gonzo Judaism.”
Inspired by the “rebellious, risk-taking attitude, associated with gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson,” Goldstein wrote the book, one of 10 he has published, to challenge contemporary Jews to revitalize their faith with creative and innovative steps.
“I’ve had a pretty unconventional path as a rabbi,” Goldstein said, over lunch in the hall of Congregation Beth Shalom. This journey has included stops in places as varied as Mongolia, Greenwich Village, Virginia, and the Arctic, before arriving in Napa Valley.
Dogsledding in Alaska, sky diving in New Zealand and practicing martial arts have all been part of his own spiritual quest, but so has standing at Ground Zero in New York, days after the 9/11 terrorist attack wondering, “how am I going to help these people?”
It is all part of what he calls “searching for the divine in uncomfortable and unexpected places,” which is also the subtitle of another of his books, a memoir titled “God at the Edge.”
“As a rabbi and a writer, I hope to reach the seekers, dreamers, questioners and strugglers among us who are tired of the status quo and who crave a bolder, more authentic approach to life, particularly in the spiritual arena,” he has written. “Through my books, articles and teaching, I always strive to face the challenges of the human journey.”
A native of Chicago, Goldstein studied philosophy in college in Philadelphia. “I thought about academia,” he said, “but the questions I was interested in — the big questions — does God exist, what happens, does anything happen after we die? I felt that religion was the best equipped to answer them. So I became a rabbi.”
He went on to study in Jerusalem and Los Angeles, but it was love — a girl he met in Jerusalem — that led him to make his next move to New York City.
“She dumped me as soon as I got there,” he said, “but it was the best thing that could have happened. I had a pretty robust, exciting career living in New York in my 20s and 30s.”
Among his many, varied projects, which included working at a Jewish think tank, serving as a reserve US Army chaplain, and working with federal law enforcement, he became the founder of a start-up congregation, in Greenwich Village. The New Shul included artists, writers, therapists and theater people.
This experience led him to write “Gonzo Judaism.”
He led the New Shul for a decade, and married, but, “like a lot of things it came to an end,” he said. New York is “an exciting place especially when you’re young and single. But I got tired of it, the cost of living, the quality of life, the noise. I went through a divorce, and there wasn’t anything keeping me in New York, so I decided to move back to Chicago to be closer to my parents. I didn’t really have a plan. I knew I wanted to take a break from the full-time rabbinate.”
He spent the next seven years in Chicago, where he taught at Loyola University and worked at an interfaith organization called the Parliament of the Worlds’ Religions. Next, he said, “I put my dog in my car and we drove down to the Shenandoah Valley,” where he spent a semester at the Center for Interfaith Engagement at the Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia.
“I did part-time rabbinic work and then I said, ‘You know what, I’m ready to get back into the full-time rabbinate but only for the right place.’ I looked at the different opportunities and the two that were most appealing was one in San Francisco and one here in Napa. This was the one that felt like a much better fit. They felt the same, so here I am.”
Trial by fire
He had been in Napa for three months when the October wildfires broke out.
“It was literally and figuratively a trial by fire,” he said. “It brought back a lot of memories of what it was like to be in New York after 9/11. When I was at Ground Zero with a real mentor of mine, a Catholic priest. This is two days after it happened; there was smoke coming out of the ground. We had masks. I didn’t know what to do — it’s this apocalyptic scene, almost a scene from a movie, and I said to this priest, ‘What the hell are we supposed to do? How am I going to help these people? They don’t want to hear about God or spirituality or anything like that.’ And he said, look, our job is simply to offer what he called ‘the ministry of presence.’ He said, ‘Just be there for people.’ I’ve remembered that to this day.
“There were interesting parallels to the wildfires, and some differences. It was intense,” he said. “I volunteered over at CrossWalk. Speaking as someone who was first-responder in New York, there’s not always a lot you can do. Firefighters have a clear mission; with clergy it’s a little less clear what your role is, other than to comfort people and help people feel safe. I just tried to track people down let them know I was thinking about them.”
Meeting people where they are
Now settled into a home in Browns Valley with his fiancee from Chicago, Goldstein is planning for a spring where he’ll try out some of his new ideas, creating activities that will create a bridge to the greater Napa community, as well as grow and invigorate his own congregation.
“I feel that this is a hidden gem, but a lot of people don’t even know we exist, and I want to change that,” he said of Congregation Beth Shalom. “We’re doing a lot of good things. I want us to raise our profile and the profile of the Jewish community in Napa.”
Congregation Beth Shalom “is a community of about 200 households. That’s the largest we’ve ever been. But there are hundreds — I think even a few thousand — Jews who live in Napa County who are not connected to the synagogue, so I think the potential for growth is huge here.”
Coming up, on Monday, Congregation Beth Shalom will be hosting a free screening of a film, “The Return,” a documentary made by a friend about the efforts of four young women to rebuild a Jewish community in Poland. The screening is free, and the public is invited.
On Feb. 13, at the Napa Distillery, Goldstein is trying out an idea that was a success in New York called “Spirits and Spirituality.” It combines a tasting of spirits with a discussion of Jewish mysticism. It, too, is free for the first 50 people who sign up for it.
As beautiful as the new Congregation Beth Shalom building is, he said, “there are a lot of Jews who live in Napa, who, for whatever their reasons, they’re never going to set foot in a synagogue. But if we go out and meet them where they are — whether it’s in a vineyard, or an art gallery or at a distillery or a wine bar, I can really touch peoples’ lives in ways that I couldn’t standing behind a lectern in a house of worship.”
He’ll also be at Napa Bookmine on Feb. 20 to read from his books,”God at the Edge” and “Gonzo Judaism.”
Interfaith relationships have always been very important to him, he said, “and so I’ve tapped in pretty quickly, because it’s a small town, to the interfaith clergy council here. We put together a peace vigil after the Charlottesville (confrontations), and a Martin Luther King day of action and compassion. I look forward to doing more in the years ahead with other faith leaders.”
“I don’t believe in being political from the pulpit,” he said, “but in my personal life, I feel like I can do what I want within reason.” It was why he marched in the Women’s Marches in Chicago in 2017 and in Napa this year.
“Since I’m doing this on my own time and not speaking from the pulpit, it’s not about the Democrats and the Republicans. For me, it’s about having someone in office whose policies and words have led to a lack of respect, to unsafe situations for people; we just have an administration that doesn’t treat people with dignity and as a member of the clergy, I have to speak out against this.”