The rabbi arrives
On the evening of Sept. 11, a group of Arab students met with faculty, counselors and representatives of the Chico State administration in a room in the new student union to discuss the possibility of local fallout from that day’s horrific attacks in New York and on the Pentagon. There was a genuine fear among these students of reprisal from misguided Americans seeking revenge on anyone who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent.
Early in the meeting, a fellow with dark hair and a beard, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans and in most ways unremarkable in appearance, stuck his head in the room and was quickly introduced as Yitzhak Nates, the rabbi at Chico’s Jewish Congregation Beth Israel.
Rabbi Nates told the students he was there to support them.
“Most important,” he advised, “do not feel guilty for what has happened. I know sometimes with some of the actions taken by the Israeli government I find myself feeling guilty. But I’m telling you, don’t do that to yourselves.”
And with those sage words, he was gone.
“The Muslims and Arabs were surprised that I was at the meeting,” Nates said recently. “But that kindness was met with kindness.”
Nates says he wants to help bring unity to Chico by bridging cultural gaps on the local level. To that end, he works closely with the Butte County Human Relations Network and the Chico Area Interfaith Council. Recently, he participated in a door-to-door campaign in downtown Chico to get local business owners to display anti-hate messages in their windows.
Nates said he’s been interested in Middle Eastern politics since 1985, when he graduated from Vermont’s Middlebury College, where he studied economics and philosophy. Soon after graduation, he traveled to Israel, where he says he spent about half of his 20s, learning much about Judaism. On his way home, he passed through Egypt, Jordan and Syria. In Cairo, he said, he saw so much squalor and poverty he decided to find a way to help.
After returning to the U.S., he attended Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he earned his master’s in international relations and Middle Eastern affairs. Soon after, he started working for the New York-based International Center for Peace in the Middle East. For four years, Nates helped put together legislation that went before Congress and was aimed at bringing peace to the Middle East. He later worked for two years for the Israeli Civil Rights Party.
In 1994, Nates went into seminary school to become a rabbi. He spent five years in the seminary, learning both Hebrew and Arabic. “My Hebrew,” he says today, “is much better.”
Nates, along with his wife and two children, arrived in Chico last year. Sam Edelman, coordinator of Modern Jewish Studies at Chico State, is on the committee that hired him.
“It was his energy,” Edelman says about the decision to hire Nates. Though, during the first year, he adds, “There were stormy moments as well as positive moments.”
Nates says he spent a lot of that first year feeling out his new congregation, which is the only one in Chico and consists of about 80-85 families. And eventually, he says, he found his calling here by working to help unite cultures that have a long history of conflict.
“Working to bring people together and speaking out against violence and hate balances well with my work as a rabbi in the Jewish community."