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Under the Sun: Rabbi Steve Finley, Congregation Shir Shalom

Posted on September 4, 2015 by Sonoma Valley Sun

Finley? Bet there’s a story behind that name.

Yes. My father’s family was from Ireland — Catholic. He spent his childhood in a Catholic orphanage. He met my mother while a G.I. in England during the Second World War. She was from an Orthodox Jewish family. Something felt familiar and good about her to him…and they married and returned to the U.S. after the war. They led an itinerant lifestyle…searching for something; they moved through Chicago, IL, Florida and Hollywood, CA.

And you? Where were you born and how is it you ended up Jewish?

Anaheim, the last of four kids. We lived among the orange groves in Compton. I graduated High School in Long Beach. My mother’s relatives from London moved to Hollywood and were influential in convincing my parents that we kids should have a Jewish education. My brother and I were sent to Wednesday afternoon Hebrew School, and as a result of that I missed the chance to play Little League baseball. My dad said he had a “Jewish” soul.

And you’ve ended up a Rabbi.

It’s a bit of a story. I went to Israel at 18, and ended up staying there for 20 years. I lived on a Kibbutz, where there was no private ownership; “communal effort, communal reward.” We had 30 cars and if you needed one you simply took some keys. I spoke Hebrew and ended up teaching English. Like all Israelis I joined the military and joined a combat unit of the Israeli Defense Force. I went into Lebanon in 1982 at 22 years of age as a platoon Sergeant. Over time, the Kibbutz ideology shifted and became less communal. And I was also working as the Kibbutz “sound guy” and that’s how I met my wife: she was a wedding singer. We married in 1996 and together decided to move to the U.S. for a couple of years to raise our sons. I have joint citizenship and obviously, we stayed.

I’m still waiting to hear about becoming the Rabbi for Shir Shalom.

Yes. I have a degree from Haifa University in Israel, and I loved teaching. I taught English to Israelis and also Christian and Muslim Arabs. I liked building bridges to the entire community. Anyway, while back in America I got my Masters Degree in Education and continued to to get work within the Jewish community. It was then I met some influential Rabbis; I felt a spiritual void in my life once I left Israel and began a personal path of religious studies, a spiritual path. This was true for my older brother too, who became a Rabbi. I was ordained in 2009. Somewhat later I accepted a job offer as a Rabbi in Mexico City and we lived there for three years. In 2014 we returned to California and began looking for work.

I feel Sonoma coming.

Shir Shalom was looking for a Rabbi and that was one of several jobs I considered. Ultimately, the job here in Sonoma was the most appealing. It’s only part-time but my wife Yaffa and my son Ben, who is at Sonoma High, really like it here. So do I. It’s a great community, and sharing space with the Congregational Church is wonderful.

Tell me about that.

We do joint programs. Before she left Nancy Taylor and I conducted a “Trial of Abraham”. You know, the story of how he almost sacrificed his son? Well Nancy was the defense attorney and I was the prosecutor. The place was packed. We even called God as a witness via a wireless connection! We also spend time together as congregations playing and enjoying songs for peace – we sing and pray together.

Sounds amazing! So will this become a full-time job?

We’ll see. I am a musician, officiate at weddings and Yaffa handles my social media. And Shir Shalom has many members who are on a serious spiritual path, including some fine Torah scholars. Every week twenty or so of us gather together to study. I’m filled with positive feelings. Both Shir Shalom and I have been on a journey, and now we are together at a cross-road twenty years later.

Interview by Larry Barnett



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