The first full-time pulpit for Rabbi Joe Hample was the kind of congregation few rabbis get to experience.
In fact, it wasn’t a congregation at all — not in the traditional sense.
Hample served three years as a chaplain at the Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, Calif. — a maximum security facility that houses — to use Hample’s words — “the toughest SOBs in California.”
He was the first rabbi to serve as a chaplain there.
After that, coming to Tree of Life Congregation in Morgantown, W.Va., whose members are primarily professionals and academics from West Virginia University, could be like taking a walk in the park.
But Hample, 56, who was hired this summer to be Tree of Life’s new spiritual leader, faces challenges at this small congregation, which he describes as “enabling people to own their Judaism.”
“One thing I’m focused on is reinventing the religious school here,” he said. “I’m anxious to make a big success of that. I believe in making it fun and interactive and keeping the kids motivated, because kids have more energy than adults and shorter attention spans.”
There are some 20-kids signed up for Tree of Life’s religious school this year. Hample plans to keep them motivated by teaching them Jewish subjects using nontraditional methods.
At student pulpits, he’s used clip art to teach dietary laws. Once, to show his class what pilgrimage festivals might have looked like in biblical times, he decked his kids out with inexpensive flutes, drums and crowns and paraded them as they sang “we are marching to Jerusalem” (sung to the tune, “We are Marching to Pretoria.”)
Not that reading and workbook assignments aren’t important, but Hample said Jews everywhere must seek new ways to engage their youth, or risk losing them.
“I think it (Jewish education) is very important, and it’s not obvious how to do it,” he said. “You have to try new stuff, keep reinventing it, keep it current and keep it relevant.”
Many weddings he and his colleagues perform these days are interfaith, Hample said. “You’re selling Judaism all the time to people who are not Jewish or are Jewish but don’t have a Jewish education, or are Jewish but feel alienated [from it]. It’s something rabbis didn’t have to deal with 100 years ago.”
From those marriages come the kids he and his colleagues will teach, Hample said. Those kids, he said, have “the most opportunity to leave and the least reason to stay — unless we give them a reason.”
A New York native who grew up in Larchmont, Hample received his bachelor’s degree in Russian from Harvard University in 1978. He moved to California at age 23 and spent 20 years as a systems analyst at Wells Fargo Bank.
In retrospect, that wasn’t the right career for him.
“I had a sense of no impact,” Hample said. I was there for 20 years; you think anyone remembered one thing I did? Whereas in the rabbinate you have the sense you’re making a difference.
“So eight years ago, I walked around my company picnic and told people, ‘Well, goodbye. I’m going to rabbinical school.’ People didn’t even know what that is. It was worth it just to see the look on their faces … but I have no regrets. Every moment in the rabbinate is fascinating.”
He was ordained from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles campus, in 2009. While there, he served as the student rabbi at Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, the oldest gay and lesbian synagogue in the world. He also interned at Congregation Or Ami, in Calabasas, Calif.; Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, N.Y.; Congregation Beth Haverim, Spokane, Wash.; and was a student chaplain in the Los Angeles County corrections system.
He moved to Morgantown with his partner, Barry Wendell, a retired teacher.
Tree of Life President Adam Rosefsky said Hample just stood out during the congregation’s search for a new rabbi.
“While all of the candidates who visited us were very able, the Search Committee all agreed that Rabbi Joe was the best candidate, Rosefsky said. “His sermons were engaging, entertaining and provided very intriguing insights into the particular weekly Parsha. He has a wonderful singing voice, and even though he sang new tunes for us, he did it in such a way that he taught the congregation those tunes while singing and everyone joined along. Even the children found his services enjoyable.”
Given his work at Pelican Bay and in the L.A. corrections system, Hample didn’t rule out doing corrections work in Morgantown, which is home to the Kennedy Federal Corrections Institute, and does have a Jewish inmate population.
“I wouldn’t rule it out,” he said. “At the moment [though] I’m just getting my bearings and getting to know
the members of Tree of Life Congregation.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)