It would seem that going from working the comedy club circuit to becoming a rabbi and Jewish educator is quite a zigzagged road. But for Yechiel Hoffman, it was pretty straight. Overlaps exist between the two professions, he said, like nourishing and engaging people, attracting new followers, and always turning corners of creativity.
“I loved being in entertainment and being around very high energy and creative people. But I hated the game and it was killing me, and it ultimately wasn’t very fulfilling.”
Some volunteer work running the teen minyan at a synagogue hit a more meaningful note. Encouraged by others who recognized his talents and impact in this setting, he took to a path that he might not have anticipated as a film school graduate.
Rabbi Hoffman is now Director of Youth Learning and Engagement at Temple Beth Am, a Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles where he has unleashed his immensely engaging energy, spirit and vision to push Jewish education beyond existing assumptions and norms.
“I like the new,” he said. “I like pushing boundaries. I like being creative and innovative.”
“I want to impact people who I am tasked to impact. I want to change the lives of these families so they and their children can live meaningful Jewish lives. But on top of that I want to change the Jewish world to embrace realities of the 21st century,” he added.
If energy and directness were the criteria for a citation, then Rabbi Hoffman might well take it. But add his singular vision and impact as a young Jewish educator, and it’s obvious why he is a 2013 recipient of the Covenant Foundation’s Pomegranate Prize.
Rabbi Hoffman was in his first year at Temple Beth Am when he received the Prize. He was nominated for it while teaching Jewish Studies at Milken Community High School in Los Angeles. The timing, he said, was fortuitous and fortunate.
“I was merging into being a educational leader in practice and not just aspiration,” he said. “It is a difficult process transitioning from a creative, entrepreneurial educator into more of a leadership role where I am not anymore responsible for just my own piece.”
And so the assets attached to being a Pomegranate Prize recipient – such as professional networking and development - were particularly valuable at that point in his trajectory.
“It is a humbling experience to be recognized on any level, but beyond that, it is significant to be part of the Covenant family and be involved in their processes and designs for growth and development,” he said. “I’ve been nurtured in a way that I wasn’t expecting and it’s changed my life.”
Rabbi Hoffman is well aware of the dangers of isolation among Jewish educators and other professionals, who all too often can become so institutionally focused that they lose sight of trends outside their walls, and the connections to peers that can spur creativity, innovation and collective spirit.
Receiving the prize allowed him to engage with present and past recipients, along with educators and thought leaders at Foundation-sponsored seminars and events – and to create relationships that have only continued to grow and nurture impact.
“These are not one-off encounters; they are continuous,” he said. “I am more enriched because I have encountered these people. This helps me when times haven’t been easy or when I question if this is the right path for me. I get to talk to or be around these people and I feel emboldened and empowered and engaged in such meaningful ways and it gives me renewed fire and purpose.”
Resources made available to him allowed him to pursue development opportunities he may never have been able to but for the Pomegranate Prize.
One of the first things he set out to do was hire a professional coach to help him navigate his own professional journey and stay sensitized to his motivations for becoming an educator in the first place.
“I need more than myself to be good at what I do and to stay balanced mentally, emotionally and spiritually,” he said. “I can’t just rely on myself to be successful in this high pressure environment. I’ve learned to mediate and moderate my way through the challenges of my work and my vision as a Jewish professional and educator.”
Rabbi Hoffman also took a few road trips, to San Francisco and Philadelphia, to closely examine other Jewish educational ecosystems and speak to communal leaders to fully understand what works, what doesn’t, and why. And he spent time at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Israel to study Torah just for the sake of it.
“I needed to tap into a part of myself that just enjoys studying Torah,” he said. “I needed that back. I needed to open up a part of myself that in the day to day I was losing touch with - that part that keeps me excited about being an educator.”
In 2014, Rabbi Hoffman received a Doctorate in Education from Northeastern University with a specialty in organizational leadership and as such, he is steeped in process-driven outcomes and approaches. He has brought a design-thinking framework to his work and vision for change – a model he has vigorously applied at Temple Beth Am.
New educational programs have been created and implemented in line with the model. Simply put, there is a new emphasis on listening to the community and delivering approaches in line with their wants and needs.
So at a family Shabbaton, there may be dedicated time and space for parents to talk to each other about their engagement as Jews. During High Holiday services, there may be learning opportunities and moments of community building beyond the sanctuary. And a certain Shabbat may be “superhero” themed, so that parents and children can learn together in shared space and time.
“The day is gone when people will just come to the well,” Rabbi Hoffman said. “We have to get rid of the well and bring the water to them. Things are moving way too quickly and we as a community are moving too slowly and then we lose audience much more than we are used to expecting.”
Rabbi Hoffman’s directness is an outgrowth of his passion, but also a reflection of his firm belief that Jewish education and engagement must embrace innovation and experimentation and inclusion if it is to get things right for the 21st century.
“We can’t do the same old Jewish stuff and hope that guilt and allegiance to tradition will motivate people to engage, because it won’t,” he said. “We need to let go of holy grails and shift our way of thinking and operating.
“As a Jewish educator, I want to figure out better ways to do things and transmit a Judaism that is not just something that you put in your pocket like a token, but one that is a driving force in your life.”