Rabbi Paves the Way as Leader and Intellectual
Among his peers, Jonathan “John” Blake ’95 is known as a rabbi who loves the spotlight. Not only have his analytical contributions to CNN, GQ magazine and various other publications led him to be a thought leader in his field, but his love for music lets him take the stage, albeit on a smaller scale, during his services.
Growing up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Blake was part of a “typical Jewish-American home,” as he describes it. Now, as a senior rabbi of the Westchester Reform Temple in Westchester County, New York, he most enjoys the relational aspect of his work with the congregation, the one-to-one counseling work, interfacing with people at all ages and stages of life, the business-and-management aspects of presiding over a large congregation and the pursuit of social justice. Certainly, he is anything but typical.
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t find time for himself. Blake can not be found without a book in his free time. He’s a voracious reader. (His all-time favorite book is “Moby Dick.”)
Blake decided to attend Amherst on the spot after seeing the Zumbyes perform during Admitted Students Day in the spring of 1991.
“I had only had the generic campus tour of Amherst,” Blake said. “There was this event when the DQ, Sabrinas, Bluestockings and, of course, the Zumbyes [performed]. I remember the banana suit — I was like, ‘This is awesome.’ They sang the song ‘What’s Your Name,’ and I was totally sold … I thought, ‘This is the school that I have to go to,’” he said.
“I even spent a summer vacation drafting a libretto of a comic opera that, thank God, never has seen the light of day, but which may have influenced Amherst Choral Society Director, my dear friend and teacher Mallorie Chernin, to invite the admissions department to give me a second look,” Blake added.
Though he loved singing, Blake never considered a career in music. “These days, singing is so embedded in my rabbinate and the community that I serve,” he said. “People always ask me if I ever wanted to go to cantorial school.”
“I always say, ‘No, I would much rather be a rabbi who sings than be a cantor who wishes to do everything else.’ Music has never been my main gig,” he said. “But I am married to a performing artist who works in the Broadway community.”
Blake met Kelly McCormick, his wife, when she began singing at Blake’s seminary school. She recently obtained a prominent role in the Broadway musical “Carousel.”
“One professional musician per household is enough,” Blake said with a laugh.
When Blake is not supporting the families of his congregation during their best and worst times in life, you may find him giving a powerful sermon, writing articles, recording podcasts or contributing to news outlets.
The Path to the Rabbinate Though he initially came to Amherst planning to major in environmental studies, a bad experience in the mud quickly changed his mind.
“We were on Cape Cod at 7:30 in the morning on a chilly September day and I was knee-deep in muck, picking around for clam shells to bring back to the lab for my Invertebrate Paleontology course,” Blake said.
“It was at that precise moment that I realized that I hated dirt, and promptly did an academic about-face,” he added.
Instead, Blake decided to major in English. His thesis incorporated the religious aspect of his life, as he examined the analytical features found in the Bible’s Book of Psalms.
His faith became even more integral once he joined Hillel at Amherst. “I would go to Hillel with my friends, and I quickly decided that Hillel would be my warm and familiar environment,” he said.
“At first I was going just for the community. But I became more serious about my own religion. It was the start of my great, 10-year kosher experience. It wasn’t like there was so much gourmet food at Valentine Dining Hall,” he said jokingly. “It wasn’t too much of a sacrifice.”
Hillel gave Blake the opportunity to grow as a leader in a spiritual community, and helped give him the skills he would eventually use as a rabbi.
“Hillel was kind of like a ‘grassrootsy’ group, as opposed to some of the much larger universities with greater Jewish populations,” he said. “We, as students, had more authority to control the direction of Hillel. We got to make it in our image.”
And that he did. In the fall of 1992, Blake used his connections with the musical community and brought them to Hillel. “We planned, my sophomore year, a Hanukkah party. In one night, it became the biggest party Amherst had all year,” he said.
“We brought all the a cappella groups to perform, and we served free vodka, babka and doughnuts. We calculated that over a thousand people came,” he added.
By the beginning of sophomore year, Blake realized he wanted to pursue the rabbinate. He credits Rabbi Yechiael Lander, who oversaw Hillel at the time, with helping him come to the decision. “He helped me probe my desire to serve God and the Jewish people,” he said.
“I really thought I would be in the sciences and Judaism would be an enrichment of my life. It just happens to have inverted,” he added. “I chose serving the Jewish community as my profession, and the life of the mind, and the pursuit of intellect and literature, all [of] which are my current line of work.”
Blake’s decision to go to seminary school, which he mentioned totally shocked his room group at the time, did not come out of the blue. While growing up, Blake said he and his family attended Friday night services every week. Going to Hillel every week taught him more about the Jewish community. Blake also took Hebrew classes while at Amherst.
“By the time I was in high school, I would find myself, over the weekends, at the temple. It was interesting that I hadn’t thought of the rabbinate as a career pursuit,” he said.
Looking back, he said, these religious experiences throughout his childhood and high school years were not incidental but rather instrumental to his career path.
A Time of Growing Maturity After graduating from Amherst, Blake attended the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio, graduating with honors for academic achievement and homiletics — the art of preaching — in 2000.
A friend of Blake since they attended Hillel together, Rabbi Brenner Glickman ’93 believes that Blake matured immensely between graduating from Amherst and when they first saw each other during Blake’s second year of rabbinical school.
“John had all the skills. He’s brilliant, thoughtful, personable and he was a musical talent. He was a big man on campus,” Glickman said.
In rabbinical school, Glickman said that Blake’s studies helped him “develop the heart and soul that you need to be a rabbi … he softened into a much more thoughtful and caring person,” he said.
Glickman credits Blake’s maturity, in part, to other students in seminary school. “When we went to Amherst, there were a lot of achieving, type-A people. There was a sense of competition,” Glickman said.
Conversely, the atmosphere of rabbinical school had less competition. “It was a different setting. When we were reunited during his second year of school, that’s when we became so close. I thought he was aloof, at first, during college. When I saw him then, he had completely transformed,” Glickman said.
As the senior rabbi at the Westchester Reform Temple today, Blake stands out from his peers not only because of his incorporation of music into his practice, but also because he excels in the communicative and teaching aspects of his position.
“His professional reputation is very strong,” Glickman said. “He is very highly regarded as one of today’s stars. He is a talent for his brilliance and creativity. He’s very respected by his peers, but he is also loved by his congregation, which is more important.”
Indeed, Blake’s name is known to many across the country. He has been a contributor on CNN and appeared in GQ magazine and two different documentary films — “51 Birch Street” and “112 Weddings” — to top it off, he has created his own podcast titled “Everything is Connected.” Its seven episodes are available on Apple Podcasts.
“He’s a star,” Glickman said laughingly. “Not just anyone can be the senior rabbi at his temple — expectations are very high there. It’s a very prestigious congregation.”
Changing the World’s Perspective on Rabbis Blake has always enjoyed public speaking and activities that push him to the forefront. In the future, Blake said he would like to resuscitate his podcast and create a video series that could be used in congregation to dive constructively into the challenges facing large religious communities today.
“I’m into that stuff,” Blake said. “I’ve always appreciated the more front aspect of what a rabbi does.” Yet, what Blake finds most gratifying is the aspect of being together with his congregation and journeying with them through some of life’s best and worst moments.
“The most rewarding part of being a rabbi so far has been being invited to so many moments of family celebration, grief and transition,” he said.
For many people, Blake said, you only go to so many bar mitzvahs, yet for Blake, that is literally every week. Many of these moments have been filled with joy, he noted. On the other hand, there are times in which his duty as a rabbi is to console families, which he said has been the most transformative part of being a rabbi. “He is a part of their family, and one of the most important people in their lives,” Glickman said. “Hundreds and hundreds of families are looking at him like that.”
“A wedding is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a couple. For me, it’s a couple times a month. That’s exciting for me, not just vicariously,” Blake said.
Recently, he was also asked to officiate at the funeral of a family of five who had perished in a plane crash in Costa Roca in December 2018.
“Those are not the moments that I went into the rabbinate for,” he said.
But “I am out to change the image of what a rabbi looks like and does,” Blake said.
And he certainly is.