Rabbi Howard Bogot, 81, has spent a lifetime teaching Jewish texts to Jewish students in Jewish settings, from youth groups to summer camps to synagogues.
In 2019, at Penn State University, Abington, most of his students are not Jewish. Not that that’s deterred him. His students, he said, are conducting interviews with their own parents and grandparents about Jewish texts in their native tongues, everything from Mandarin to Spanish.
“Match that,” he said, and laughed. “I sound overly excited, because I get overly excited about it.”
Bogot’s is a life animated by that excitement. Raised in Oak Park, Illinois, by parents who left Europe seeking a better life in the United States, Bogot’s story is one of a man passionately pursuing a deeper of understanding of Judaism and the world, often at the same time.
Oak Park, a town just west of Chicago, was not only home to the Bogots (and, he remembers, a few Frank Lloyd Wright houses), but to his father’s drugstore. His father met his mother through a classmate at the pharmacology school in Chicago, and running the drugstore was a family affair. Bogot remembers those days fondly, especially the prodigious number of Black Cow root beer floats that he enjoyed (back then, his intake earned him the nickname “Butterball”).
Though religious practice was not particularly important to his parents, Bogot took part in the synagogue youth groups with his brother and spent quite a bit of time at Anti-Defamation League and National Conference of Christians and Jews-sponsored activities. Most pivotally, he and his brother, Martin, attended Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.
He and Martin each returned from camp with a distinct request for their mother. Martin asked if they might keep a kosher home, and Bogot wanted to begin lighting Shabbat candles. To this day, Bogot said, those two requests still stand out to him as symbols of he and his brother’s differing interpretations of Jewish religiosity. They “represent facets of perception about Jewish identity,” he said. Today, his brother lives a modern Orthodox lifestyle in Jerusalem, and Bogot is a learned scholar of Reform Judaism.
Bogot’s life since has been a whirlwind of Jewish education, as he piled up degrees on his way to the rabbinate.
He worked at a Methodist summer camp as a Jewish resource counselor toward the end of high school, one of the first times he experienced the joy of teaching Judaism to those without a lick of familiarity, and also one of the first times he considered teaching as a life. He worked as a youth group adviser for Oak Park Temple and created an educational program for special needs adults to learn Jewish values. He has degrees from Lewis University, formerly National College of Education (B.Ed), the University of Cincinnati and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, along with an M.Ed from the University of Cincinnati and graduate degrees from HUC-JIR.
Oh, and he taught his youth group students how to do the box-step waltz, but don’t ask him how he figured that one out — he’s not much of a dancer, he said.
He worked at Gratz College for almost 15 years, a time he considers deeply influential on his path.
“The years at Gratz College were unbelievably important for me,” he said. “It offered me an opportunity to do administrative work, be an assistant professor, teach education, be an administrator and work with what was then called The School of Observation and Practice” (a three-day-a-week conservative Hebrew school). It was the time he spent there that prepared him to take his first national job as the director of curriculum development for the Union of Reform Judaism, a position he held for another 15 years.
In 1996, he and his wife, Mary K. Bogot, made aliyah, and spent five years in Israel, knowing they would come back; three kids were in the United States, and just one was in Israel. In the end, the lone holdout ended up back in the U.S. He was a professor in the New Immigrant English Teacher Education program at Israel’s Beit Berl College. (Bogot’s wife of 46 years, who died in 2016 after battling Parkinson’s, was a convert to Judaism and published the memorably titled book How Do You Know the Word Schlep? You’re Not Jewish!)
He’s written books on every facet of Jewish education and spiritual life, almost exclusively as introductory and educational texts. Just a small sample includes A Children’s Haggadah, My First 100 Hebrew Words and The Aleph-Bet of Jewish Values. He’s at work on another book now, too; the writing part is easy, it’s just finding a publisher that remains the trick.
There have been more teaching stops along the way — at University of Pennsylvania’s Literacy Network as a Jewish studies facilitator, and as a mentor for 30 teachers at Cheltenham High School, along with adult education courses at Beth Am, Kol Ami and Rodeph Shalom. But it is his current stop, Penn State Abington, that has him truly animated these days. To be sure, it’s the only place that non-Jewish students will stop him to say, “Rabbi, I did something that was kedusha today.”
“Penn State, Abington is really home for me,” Bogot said.
He began teaching just one course, largely for Jewish students, in the tiny Jewish Studies program, the only one in the Penn State system outside of main campus. But as the course grew in popularity, demand grew right along with it; now, he teaches three courses per semester to a diverse group of students. Students from Iran, Colombia, China and other corners of the globe read Sholom Aleichem, A.B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz, to the delight of Bogot. The process of teaching universal humanistic values through particular Jewish ones, Bogot said, is what has motivated him for decades. And to do it for such a diverse group of students at this stage in his life?
“Who would’ve thought that that could’ve happened?” he asked.