When newly ordained Rabbi Nate Crane, freshly installed as the director of lifelong learning at Congregation B'nai Tikvah in Deerfield, speaks enthusiastically about "changing the culture of our Jewish education," it sounds like something out of a Jewish remake of "Going My Way." Crane would be in the Bing Crosby role, butting heads with his more tradition-bound superior in bringing worship into modern times.
However, Crane and B'nai Tikvah Rabbi Alex Felch are on the same page when it comes to engaging members of their community. "We're very fortunate to have such an energetic and experienced professional building future educational programs for all our students," Felch said in an e-mail from Israel.
The director of lifelong learning is a new position created for just this purpose. Crane will be responsible for overseeing the religious schools, adult education and youth programming, as well as outreach initiatives to bring new families into the B'nai Tikvah community and "make them feel at home," he said in a phone interview.
Crane, 29, relocated from Los Angeles, where he had lived since the age of 15. He moved here with his wife of two years, Rachel, and their 1-year-old daughter, Isla. He has been in Highland Park for two weeks. "I was excited about the place before I even got here," he said laughing. "I'd always meet people who had family or friends who lived here, and they'd tell me how great it was."
Highlights of their scant time here, he said, have been visits to the lake and the brisket at Shaevitz Uptown BBQ in Highland Park. "What is exciting for us," he said, "is that while the weather in Los Angeles is warm, it can be cold as far as people go. Walking around downtown Highland Park, everyone smiles at you. People you've never met say, 'Good morning,' and ask how old our baby is. Things are calmer and less intense, but there is still that strong Jewish culture."
Crane observed that in his new position he will be taking his cue from the city itself, with its long-standing storefronts, but at the same time with current and contemporary offerings.
"That's what I will be trying to do at B'nai Tikvah," he said, "teach the Torah and share its wisdom, but also endeavor to make it relevant in a way that will engage young families."
His background is somewhat unorthodox. In high school and college he was a drummer in a series of popular bands that played sold-out shows at such iconic L.A. hot spots as the Whiskey a Go Go. He was not a member of Jewish youth groups and admits to not paying attention in Hebrew school.
But he recently received his rabbinical ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles and served as a rabbinical intern at Congregation Or Chadash in Scottsdale, Ariz. He was also associate director at Camp Wise, one of California's largest Jewish day camps, at Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles.
After completing rabbinical school, he said, he feels uniquely qualified to accessibly communicate from his outsider's perspective his "inside" knowledge of the wisdom and beauty of the Torah.
A signal of a cultural shift to change the experience of Jewish education at the synagogue is a new policy that will find himself, teachers and assistants greeting carpoolers. Literally and figuratively, he said, "we need to come outside the building to meet the people where they are."
Newly ensconced in his first position as director of lifelong learning, Crane said he looked forward to being mentored by Felch, who made quite a first impression by picking up Crane when he arrived at O'Hare International Airport at 5:30 in the morning. "He is so charismatic," Crane said. "He really cares about people, and you can feel it."
Crane looks forward to meeting with other Jewish leaders in the area, some of whom he knew as rabbinical students.
But next on his agenda is an early milestone: He will conduct his first Shabbat service at 9 a.m. Saturday.