Photo courtesy Howard Yune/Napa Valley Register

From Huntington Park to Genocide Prevention: The Journey of Rabbi Lee Bycel

Lee T. Bycel wears many hats – rabbi, scholar, dean, social reformer, justice advocate, humanitarian, author, and more – but, above all, he is a humanist, anchored in Jewish values. Growing up in the Huntington Park area of Southeast L.A. County he had a unique perspective, being from one of two Jewish families in a mostly Hispanic/ Latino neighborhood. “I respect and care about all human beings on this earth,” said Bycel in a recent interview.  This has certainly been evidenced in his extensive humanitarian efforts, where he has raised millions of dollars, over the past decade in several countries and especially with Darfuri refugees in Eastern Chad.


Surely that foundation of respect for all helped secure Bycel’s most recent accolade: a presidential appointment to Board of Trustees of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. The Council consists of 55 members appointed by President Barack Obama, as well as five members each from the Senate and House of Representatives, and three ex-officio members from the Departments of Education, Interior, and State.


“My goal is that we have an appreciation of what happened – in the Holocaust and genocides world over – and we really learn from and examine why it is that human beings do this to each other, and how to build and shape a world where we no longer do this to each other.”


That humanist grounding is a theme that runs throughout Bycel’s life. In August, he resumed his role as adjunct professor at University of San Francisco (USF), teaching on the Holocaust and genocide – a course so popular the wait list is 40 deep. He hopes the students taking the course get insight into the how and why behind atrocities such as Rwanda and the Holocaust. “I want to better equip them to place today’s news and world in a different perspective, and to understand what it is about human nature which can be so good, and yet allows for us to do such terrible things to each other.”


In addition to helping to shape the vision, playing a significant role in fund development and planning  the program for the new 8,000 square foot community center at Congregation Beth Shalom of Napa Valley, Rabbi Bycel is preparing sermons for High Holy days, with an eye toward examining God’s role in our tumultuous world, as well as the inner turmoil we experience in our individual lives. “Whatever our beliefs in God are, this is not a world God wanted. God created it but gave humans free will. God isn’t causing terrible destruction. We are. How do we deal with our own turmoil and anguish in making sense of the world?”


Another growing area of interest for Bycel is society’s inability to openly talk about mental health. Bycel uses his own illness, melanoma (he is perfectly healthy now), as an illustration. “I feel no embarrassment in telling you I was sick and now feel great. On the other hand, if I said I had suffered depression  and now was fine, I think, regrettably, there would be judgment. So, how can we do a better job of welcoming those with mental health issues into our Religious Institutions and talk about it in the same way we talk about physical illnesses?”


Bycel – who received his Doctor in Ministry (D.Min.) from CST in 1995 and also served as the Smither Visiting Professor of World Religions at the Claremont School of Theology – gives partial credit to CST for his ability to grapple with pervasive societal issues. “My time at Claremont was profoundly important, and those very rich years continue to have great meaning for me,” said Bycel.  “I felt intellectually, emotionally, and professionally challenged. It opened me up to different ways of understanding relationship and ways of thinking that led – ultimately – to helping me understand my ministry, my rabbinate, in a much broader sense that I ever had before.”


Bycel is counting on his background and unique experience to strengthen the work of the Holocaust Museum Council and his work on the Committee on Conscience. “They are doing outstanding work already but there is much more to be done in terms of education, prevention, and detection regarding genocide. I hope my presence is a value add.”