Pretty much all Justin Regan knew of Maryland before he moved here was the concept of “Maryland kosher,” where some Jews make an exception to religious eating laws specifically for crabs.
Regan, 28, just finished moving into Canton with his girlfriend and cat. Originally from L.A., the executive producer of the “American Rabbi Project” and new member of B’nai Israel said his first impression of Baltimore is that it is warm, welcoming and safer than he imagined.
This interview has been condensed.
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 the D.C. rabbi emphasized affirming justice. One rabbi in South Carolina talked about a time in Mexico City he saw security outside every Jewish institutions, 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 phonebook 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.
How is Baltimore unique in its Jewish community?
I’ve already done a Maryland interview, but I do have plans to do interviews based on cities, because I realized you have to do interviews for bigger population areas or it will skew the data. I certainly do want to do a Baltimore series.
I just got here so I’m still learning. But B’nai Israel, attached to the Jewish Museum, is one of the oldest synagogue buildings in the country. It’s exciting to be part of that revitalization.