Pretty much all Justin Regan says he knew about Maryland before he moved here was the concept of “Maryland kosher,” the exception some Jews make to the dietary law prohibiting shellfish, in order to eat the famous local crabs.
Regan, 28, is the executive producer of the “American Rabbi Project,” in which he travels the country interviewing rabbis to learn more about the complexities of being a Jew in the United States.
In the process, he has interviewed Washington-area rabbis Gil Steinlauf, of Kol Shalom, and Haim Ovadia, former rabbi of Congregation Magen David, both in Rockville. Regan has produced 21 episodes since the podcast debuted in 2019.
What inspired you to start the podcast “American Rabbi Project”?
Before I started this idea, I was in public radio in Arizona. That’s where I got my journalism chops. I was going through a time of trying to find somewhere else and ultimately take time to just travel. So I wanted to make a project of it. My inner Jew thought it’d be a great time to make it a Jewish [project]. I was wrestling with these questions around Jewish identity and thought it’d be great to interview at least one rabbi of every state to gain a better understanding and feel more ownership of these struggles and make sense of things.
What are some of the most poignant lessons you’ve learned from interviewing rabbis?
The future of Judaism and the Jewish identity. There was a period of time where Judaism had to [become] palatable within the American Protestant narrative. In the last couple of decades people are starting to reclaim things in a more Jewish light. It’s interesting to learn how the future of Judaism isn’t assimilation and instead is more of willing to look into past traditions.
Also just in the wake of Pittsburgh and New York, how to respond to anti-Semitism.
What have you learned about that response?
Anti-Semitism was always a question I would ask about because I started around the time there was an increase in violent acts.
A lot of rabbis kind of were hopeful. One stressed the importance to recognize goodness, and [Rabbi Gil Steinlauf] emphasized affirming justice. One rabbi in South Carolina talked about a time in Mexico City he saw security outside every Jewish institution, and they said this is coming to you. At the time he shook it off. Who knows?
A lot of those talks came down to the importance of not shying away from Judaism. If you are visibly Jewish, you can help erase these stigmas as people get to know you and dispel myths.
That’s been one of the issues, though, is being proud that you’re Jewish and out, but also to make sure they don’t put others in danger.
What has been a surprising thing you’ve learned during this mission?
One of the big aspects of this podcast is to also get the stories of the people I interview. I started with my Chabad rabbi in Arizona. There’s not a huge Jewish community there, but what he did was look through a phone book to find Jewish last names and reach out to find Jewish people.
Then I also interviewed a rabbi in Salt Lake City. There’s a lot of synagogues out there where multiple denominations will share a synagogue, but they shared a rabbi. He liked to compare himself to the rabbis of Rome and saw himself as an ambassador to two major religions, [in relation to his role in the city’s Jewish community with the Mormon Church community there].
There’s also Rabbi Victor in West Virginia. He has a comic book collection of 50,000 books. His family is from Argentina, so comic books [as a child] helped him connect to English but also to Judaism because a lot of creators like Stan Lee were Jewish and included Jewish themes.
The most recent episode was in the state of Washington. The rabbi was part of a Ladino hip hop group in Seattle.
There’s another rabbi in Philadelphia, from Egypt, who was one of the Egyptian Jews put in jail during the Six-Day War.
So there’s a lot of stories. I still focus a lot on American Judaism, but it’s really the stories of each rabbi that I find the most interesting.