Q&A: How B’Nai Zion’s Sam Rotenberg fell in love with Judaism

The B’Nai Zion Congregation rabbi on music, philosophy — and the shaping of his Jewish identity

Staff photo by Andrew Schwartz / Rabbi Sam Rotenberg poses Tuesday outside the Mizpah Congregation building, which his Conservative Jewish B'Nai Zion Congregation is also using as it works to establish a new permanent home.

Now a few days after the Jewish new year, the High Holy Day of Yom Kippur will begin at sundown Sunday. In an interview, B'Nai Zion Congregation musician and Rabbi Sam Rotenberg discussed the arrayed contexts and communities that have shaped his love for Judaism — and how he seeks to help sustain this love for generations to come.

Q: You grew up in Florida. Your sense of yourself as a Jewish child — how did that show up to you?

A: Both my parents were Jewish professionals. My mom worked — still does — in Jewish family children's services. My dad was principal of a few different Hebrew schools down there. We went to synagogue. We had Shabbat dinner, and we kept kosher for the most part. Hebrew school twice a week. It was always just kind of a fact.

A big part, especially going into elementary school, was Camp Ramah Darom. That's the camp in Clayton, Georgia. That was where my closest friends were. It was the only time as a kid I felt completely autonomous, even though, of course, we weren't.

It was a Jewish summer camp. There were Hebrew classes. We would make candlesticks for Shabbat, or a spice box for Havdalah, or a tray for apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah. Instead of the ball, they would call it kadur — the Hebrew word for it — just to remind us we were Jewish while we played soccer.

Twenty-five years ago was my first summer there. And I've probably been there every summer, except for five, as a camper or counselor in some respect. I really believed in — I still do believe in — the Jewish camping movement as one of the major answers to assimilation, an answer to: How do we keep the next generation in love with Judaism?

Q: Did you ever feel proud to be Jewish?

A: There was a time in elementary school and in middle school where I would. It was always around Passover. You can always tell who was Jewish, because on Passover, we would have terrible matzo sandwiches, little Passover fruit candies. You could just look around. Even though like I wasn't friends with all the Jewish kids, we just had a nod.

Q: You go to the University of Miami and study philosophy and jazz music. Your sense of what it meant that you were Jewish — were you pursuing something through those mediums?

A: I was working toward being a musician, like a jazz pianist. That was my trajectory. All throughout college, the Jewishness was always incidental. I was always just — involved. I was leading services all the time. I was involved in a Jewish fraternity.

It wasn't until after college where I started actually pursuing Jewish studies intentionally. That's when I went to Jerusalem. And I took time to study Jewish texts seriously. It's not like I never studied them. But never serious, like "this is the only thing I'm doing right now." It was a year study in a Yeshiva — a dedicated center for Jewish learning. The point was just learning for learning's sake.

Rabbi Sam Rotenberg's Jewish music recommendations for the uninitiated:

— Joey Weisenberg.

— Eliana Light.

— "If you come to synagogue — B'Nai Zion — on Saturdays, I also play guitar."


Q: Why did you do that?

A: I didn't really have a strong direction. I thought rabbinical school would be in the cards. But if that really wasn't in the cards, I needed to see if serious study is something that I wanted to do. And I knew I would have to build up my foundation more before starting school.

Judaism had been such an important part of my life, but I never gave it the kind of attention it deserved.

(READ MORE: On one night of Hanukkah, a Chattanooga Jewish couple considers their past)

Q: How did that change your sense of yourself?

A: It was very empowering — to start to really understand what I had been doing for so long. It's like if you fall in love with somebody, and then you go on an intensive trip with them. And you learn so much about them and you love them even more.

Philosophy was a great way to explore wisdom generally, but the Talmud, it felt like it was a personal exploration. There's just so much depth there that I didn't know about. And there's also just the beauty of living in Israel for a little bit. The whole country runs on Jewish time. When it's Rosh Hashanah, it's New Year's. When it's Sukkot, everybody has a booth.

It was also that year, by the way, that I met Keilah. She was my study partner. Together, we had grown in our love for Jewish tradition, but also we'd grown together through it.

Q: That's your wife?

A: Yes.

Q: What happens next?

A: While I was in Jerusalem, I was also working on putting together a Jewish music project. This was a dream that I had with a friend of mine. His name is also Sam. He's also a rabbi.

The idea was to do a Jewish music documentary. It would be four months on the road, talking with people making Jewish music around the country.

The idea was, if we can pull it off, not only will we get to meet lots of people making Jewish music, and it would be such a boon for the community of Jewish musicians, make them feel special — we're coming to town, hearing their story.

But it would also answer the question I had at the time: If I wanted to go toward rabbinical school or the route of being a professional Jewish musician. There are such people, who make a living going synagogue to synagogue. And I didn't know if that was the right route to go. Because I was still very much a musician. Still am.

We started in Florida. And for four months, we made a huge circle around the United States. We talked to just under 70 musicians, 16 major cities, we hit like 30-something states.

By the time we got back to Florida, I wanted nothing to do with Jewish music. I wanted to go back and study text.

Q: Rabbinical school — how did you want to take being a rabbi into the world?

A: I wasn't looking to innovate and create a brand new thing. I really believed in the shul. I believed in the power of growing a synagogue, especially a legacy synagogue.

I didn't need to start a brand new shul like some of my classmates. I didn't want to go outside of the pulpit. Even though synagogue membership had been declining, even though the exciting things were startups, I knew that if a synagogue were to do what it's supposed to do really well, it can be a powerful force for good, for community building, for stability, for all kinds of things people need to thrive.

Q: Then you're at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. That's a huge temple. Have you ever been in a synagogue of that size?

A. No. I had taught in their religious schools, so I had a sense of who they were, but I'd never been in a mega-shul.

Q: What were the advantages of operating at that scale?

A: The senior rabbi there, David Wolpe — who's a world-renowned orator, one of the best pulpit rabbis in a generation, an amazing thinker, amazing speaker, amazing writer, amazing interviewer — he set the bar extremely high for what it meant to experience Judaism. And I think you need that in a place like Los Angeles, where production value matters.

I learned a lot from my senior rabbi. I try to emulate the way he speaks, the way he give sermons. Speaking without notes was a big thing. I know it sounds like a little thing, but it made a big difference. Way more engaging. The whole time, you can look at people. It feels like you're talking to them.

Q: Here, you're closer to your roots — family, presumably — and the camp. Was that a no-brainer decision to come here?

A: On the one hand, it was a no-brainer. On the other hand, it was not. The synagogue itself did not have a building anymore. They were on the verge of knocking it down. They were going to be coming out of COVID.

But after talking with everybody during the interview process, it just felt like a warm community, and like an opportunity — especially after being the fourth rabbi for three years.

(READ MORE: After 19 months of uncertainty, Chattanooga's B'nai Zion charts future with new rabbi, building)

This was another kind of muscle I wanted to build. I wanted to try my hand at building the shul. Like, literally finding the new building, doing what it takes to actually make it come to fruition.

I think that's a little bit of the philosopher in me. I like challenge. I'm not afraid to fail. Coming to a shul that was in that serious transition phase was very exciting to me.

Q: Why?

A: It represents everything. To invest in a synagogue, to be part of a synagogue, means that you're part of the Jewish community here. It means that you're part of a long-standing connection that synagogue has with the city. It means you have a place to pray when you need to pray, you have a place to learn when you need to learn, a place where you can raise your kids and teach them, you have a place to go to celebrate life cycles.

And then you have a place to show up when nothing's happening, and just affirm that we are together as a community.

We need a center — especially in a place like Chattanooga, it can feel isolating being Jewish — to have a place where you can go, where you can say the words that we've said for thousands of years, do the things, eat the foods, hear the sounds.

Contact Andrew Schwartz at [email protected] or 423-757-6431.