Mitchell Delcau, an engineer-turned-rabbi, was in Israel studying sediment and streams in the Negev Desert when he concluded that the earth’s processes couldn’t be fully understood through science.
“As a river engineer, I understand the meteorological processes and the hydrological processes of how the rain enters the earth and how water is moved through nature, how we get photosynthesis and what causes the rock formations to form, but when we drill down far enough, we can only explain a baseline understanding of atoms,” said Delcau, who became the new rabbi at Temple Judea of Bucks County over the summer. “We can’t explain how these things materialize from nothing.”
After concluding that science didn’t hold all the answers, Delcau said with a heavy Tennessee twang, he took a leap of faith. The knowledge gleaned from two engineering degrees did not evaporate; he only started to look at the world through a different lens.
Now as a rabbi, he draws on his science and a spiritual connection with nature to engage congregants inside the sanctuary and outside on the trail.
“I think we’re always products of our development, and over time my appreciation for natural resources and natural processes changed,” Delcau, 42, said.
Growing up just outside of Nashville, Delcau attended an Orthodox Jewish day school. He developed a close bond with one of the rabbis and decided that he wanted to pursue the same profession. But then, like other kids who dream of becoming astronauts, Delcau’s interests evolved. Judaism faded behind athletics and guitar playing, and he pursued a different profession: hydraulic engineering.
After earning a master’s degree in river engineering, Delcau accompanied his wife, a Jewish educator, to Israel for her studies. He started working as an engineer at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The professional atmosphere proved to be a bit of a culture shock. “Was engineering the right profession?” he wondered.
The leap of faith, Delcau said, happened under the cloak of a tallit.
Not satisfied with his work, Delcau had started studying in his spare time at Beit Midrash — A Liberal Yeshivah in Jerusalem. One morning, a rabbi told the students to find their own space within the sanctuary and recite the Amidah. Delcau had seen others drape tallit over their heads and tried it for the first time.
As he was praying, he recalled “having this discussion with God about what it means to teach the Jewish people,” particularly in the Reform movement, Delcau said. “That moment stayed with me all the way until I applied to rabbinical school.”
After completing the rabbinical program in 2008 at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Delcau headed west to become assistant rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Denver. He started an outdoors program, including activities such as Minyan on the Mountain during ski season. He also started Torah on Tap, where members of the congregation met at a bar and discussed Torah.
“I always thought about how we can take these things, like skiing, and frame it in a Jewish perspective, and that’s what I tried to do,” he said.
On the bimah, Delcau was endearing and charming, southern accent included, said Sarah Benjamin, a member of the Temple Emanuel congregation.
“A big statement of his — he would always say to my kids, ‘Yo, dudes, are you ready to pray?’ ” Benjamin said. “They still say it now even with him gone.”
At Temple Judea, Delcau inherits a congregation that already has some outdoor activities, including a picnic held in August at Lake Galena in Peace Valley Park. One of his goals for the congregation of about 280 families is pushing students not to withdraw from Judaism as they move into adulthood, like he did.
“I think many times you can walk away from the religious education process and you don’t touch it again until you’re 30 or 40 years old,” said Delcau, who is married with two daughters.
As a result, “you’re living the formative years of your life with a pediatric thought process as a Jew.” That is something he hopes to change for his congregation.