New rabbi takes over Vail congregation
VAIL – Jack Gabriel looks out his window and smiles.”Look at where we live. How can you be anything but great?” he said.Gabriel is bringing that sunny attitude to the B’nai Vail congregation, the local Jewish congregation. Besides his disposition, Gabriel also brings a lifetime of experience, much of it decidedly secular. Born in a refugee camp in Italy to parents who had survived the Holocaust, Gabriel came to the United States as a young boy. He attended religious schools, and his parents hoped their son would be a rabbi, but he had other ideas.”I wanted to be Bob Dylan,” he said.So, guitar in hand, Gabriel eventually landed a recording contract with Columbia Records. Through the 1960s and ’70s, Gabriel made records and traveled. In Jamaica, he met Donovan, Keith Richards and other stars of the time. He also met a young musician named Bob Marley – who Gabriel continues to call “St. Bob” – and once sat in with Marley’s band, the Wailers.In the 1970s and into the ’80s, Gabriel was in Canada, where he worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Hired as an expert in American music, Gabriel soon had his own radio show and interviewed composers and musicians including Marvin Hamlisch and Les Paul.Then it was time to shift gears.
“In the mid ’80s I felt a calling to come back to Judaism,” he said.After helping friends form a Jewish congregation in Woodstock, N.Y. in 1985 or so, Gabriel continued his studies in Philadelphia with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalome, who looks for ways for the world’s religions to work together, Gabriel said. “I’m humbled and blessed he took me on a student,” Gabriel said. Working westwardIn the 1990s, Gabriel was on the Front Range. He was the rabbi of Har Shalom, a congregation in Fort Collins for about a decade, then moved to Boulder, where he spent several years teaching and studying at the Har Hashem congregation there.Gabriel’s studies took him a few years ago to Capetown, South Africa, where he started a documentary about the work blacks and whites are doing to bring that country out of its generations of racial separation.”It’s very encouraging there,” he said. “They’ve been quietly successful at it. People have really dug in to make the transition from a bitter race war to people who are trying to get together.”
After those years of teaching and study from Boulder, Gabriel starting thinking about having his own congregation again. “I missed the connection with the community a rabbi has,” he said.He found it again after playing cowboy songs in a Ridgway bar.Coming to VailGabriel’s door to Vail opened when he performed a wedding at Ridgway, just south of Montrose. The night before, he was out at the True Grit Saloon in town. A man was playing old folk and Western songs, and Gabriel asked if he could sit in.There was an extra guitar in the house, so Gabriel played and sang for a while. Sunny Brodsky, the mother of the bride, was at the bar that night.Brodsky, the program director for B’nai Vail, told the rest of the congregation about this singing rabbi, and he was invited to Vail to talk about filling a job opening.It had been a while since the congregation had a full-time rabbi, and members weren’t in a big hurry to fill the position, relying for some time on students and rabbis from Denver.”We’d been in the interim mode for a while,” said congregation member Josh Lautenberg. “Everyone really liked the last full-time rabbi we had, and we didn’t want to rush into anything.”
In Gabriel, the congregation has found its man, Lautenberg said. And Gabriel said he’s already feeling welcome in his new home.”I’ve been really inspired,” he said.Besides the people of B’nai Vail, Gabriel said he’s impressed how people of many faiths work together at the Vail chapel.”Jack’s such a perfect fit,” Lautenberg said. “He’s made records, he sings to kids, he’s traveled the world. He’s the person we’ve hoped for for years.”Staff Writer Scott N. Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 613, or email@example.com.Vail, Colorado