Temple Mishkon Tephilo of Venice welcomes new rabbi
By Katie Lulla
After leaving Los Angeles to study and work as a rabbi in Denver and New York, Rabbi Joshua Katzan returned to the 103-year-old synagogue in Venice that his great-grandparents founded. In early June, he was officially welcomed as Mishkon Tephilo’s new rabbi.
“I am absolutely thrilled and honored to be rabbi at Mishkon Tephilo, not just because of my family lineage, but especially because of the genuine sweetness and wholeheartedness of the people that are here,” Katzan said. “To be an island of hamishness amidst the sea of flash is a thrill and I look forward to many years of invigorating conversation, joyful experiences and, God willing, making an impact, reducing suffering and enhancing people’s sense of meaning.”
Hamish is a Yiddish word for hospitable and humble, which captures the whole aura of the congregation. Mishkon is traditional, but welcoming to new perspectives and interfaith families. The congregation is a cheerful and approachable community of Venice locals who span across every career. Katzan says that while the synagogue has not completely opened, Mishkon has begun having in-person services.
“I’m going to continue teaching over Zoom at the moment on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I don’t see that changing anytime soon,” Katzan said. “Once we come back, we’re not going back to normal. We’re going forward into something that we’re going to recreate together.”
For the last six months, Katzan has become so ingrained in the community that it’s surprising that he didn’t grow up at Mishkon. Although his parents were married at Mishkon, a divorce early in Katzan’s life separated him from the congregation. It was only in adulthood that he visited the synagogue.
“I found myself sitting in the synagogue’s office with the rabbi, at the time, who was my Talmud mentor,” Katzan said. “I realized it as I put all these pieces together, the name, Mishkon Tephilo, Venice, California. […] It blew me away to realize that it actually exists.”
Although Katzan was not raised with Mishkon’s congregation, he lived in a traditional Jewish household that held a Shabbat dinner every Friday. As Katzan grew up, he sought to find a way to live an ethical life and be grounded to something more than 1980s materialism. He turned to Buddhism, Hinduism, and eventually ended up back at Judaism.
“I was stretching out looking for meaning, truth and my own path, and that means usually rejecting your childhood because you were just a child,” Katzan said. “I found that at a certain point, I started asking meaningful questions, and I started getting meaningful answers coming from my own tradition.”
After college, Katzan studied at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism, now known as American Jewish University, then he traveled to Jerusalem for more studies and work. Katzan also holds two master’s degrees in education and rabbinic literature. After his studies, he began teaching at Milken Community High School in LA with the intent to give back and update the language used in classroom education.
Katzan said that the path to becoming a rabbi wasn’t a typical story. Instead, his choices slowly built up to the obvious decision to apply for a pulpit position as an assistant rabbi at Hebrew Educational Alliance in Denver. Through this assistantship, Katzan learned two important lessons for being a rabbi. The first lesson showed up on a busy day that had Katzan scrambling between a funeral, a bris and a wedding. While running to officiate the bris, he was stopped by a congregation member asking for help on a seating plan.
“To that person, it was pressing and important. But I couldn’t let [my previous commitment] influence the way I responded. I had to be fully present and listen,” Katzan said. “[At that moment], I learned how important it is to, in the moment, […] slow down and listen. No matter what you’re doing, or what you have to do. Another thing [I learned], is the ability to listen and not offer your wisdom. What people really thrive on is a sense that somebody can hear them and can process. They want someone who has the authority to offer the guidance from the tradition, but not necessarily to have to impose it.”
After the five-year assistantship, Katzan moved to New York City to become a rabbi at Congregation Habonim near the Lincoln Center. At first, Katzan used the same community-building methods he used in Denver, but he soon found out that New Yorkers were not as communal and laidback as people in Denver.
“People enjoyed it, but it wasn’t taken. It wasn’t a community being built. I said, ‘Let’s move it to your place or your place’, [like I did in Denver]. There was this mysterious resistance,” Katzan said. “I thought maybe it was that people just didn’t know me, but it turns out that [in New York culture] people are very self-conscious of their apartments.”
After adjusting his perspective on New York community building, Katzan found success by having a good relationship with the cantor, who leads songs and prayer, working more in the daycare program and with Shabbat retreats. This allowed the congregation to relax and understand how to be rejuvenated on Shabbat. He also focused on creating connection through Jewish life events, particularly shivas, the seven-day mourning period after a burial.
After eight years, Katzan went into semi-retirement. He worked at a part-time pulpit in Phoenix and studied guitar at The Musicians Institute in Hollywood. In October 2020, Katzan received a call from Mishkon Tephilo asking him to fill the rabbi vacancy.
“My plans for the community have a lot to do with what I’m responding to, what I’ve heard from them, what they feel they need and want,” Katzan said. “They like familiarity in their services, a sense of connection with their rabbi. They want some social experiences as well. Holidays will do that naturally, but I’m looking at other ways to deliver on that.”
Katzan intends on following his predecessor’s intentions to respond to the various spiritual needs of the community and possibly bring in a younger crowd. He noted that people in younger generations may not be entirely familiar with Jewish traditions outside of mainstream practices.
“Not every Jew that walks into a synagogue is comfortable with Hebrew or with the different little mini services that take place,” Katzan said. “There’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re an alien to your own culture. That’s really the challenge for me. I want to build a bridge so that people, whoever they are, can find themselves in this tradition. It can speak to you. […]
There is not only one Judaism, there’s lots of them. There’s lots of voices in our traditions. I want to be a voice that younger people could either be challenged by or feel free to challenge. I think that this tradition is healthy enough and strong enough for people to legitimately give it their all in terms of their criticism and their complaints.”