Spotlight

Rabbi Joseph Shamash

 

Some people know exactly what they’re going to do when they grow up. Rabbi Joseph Shamash was not one of those people. A self-described “Persian-Jewish cowboy,” Joseph’s adventures have spanned several different jobs in the entertainment industry and have taken him to faraway countries. Having only graduated rabbinical school in May of 2019, Joseph is still not used to referring to himself as a rabbi. Bouncing through life like a pinball, Joseph’s journey towards rabbinic studies catapulted him wildly between introspective breakthroughs.

Joseph felt like a black sheep from an early age. “I had this split in my identity from a very early part of my life,” he says. “I was born American, but I was different because I was Jewish and even more different because I was Persian. I didn’t feel like I belonged.” His family had migrated from Iran to Dallas, where Joseph was born. Then, at the age of 11, another migration: this time to Los Angeles, where Joseph’s black sheep narrative followed. Despite feeling detached from L.A. culture, the city’s show-business spirit eventually sunk into his bones. He landed a job working for Fox Sports at nineteen. “My job was to watch the games, write down what happened, pick the best few plays, and put it on the show,” he recalls. For a sports-obsessed teenager, it was a dream come true.

After two and a half years at Fox, Joseph grew restless. It was time to flip his life around; he abruptly left his job behind, flying over the seas to study abroad. But the ghosts of Los Angeles lingered, as well as the allure of the entertainment industry. So Joseph returned, landing a job at a market research firm, screening movies and delivering ways for studios to improve their films. But Joseph was torn again, seeking something more. He set aside marketing and immersed himself in the cultural richness of South America before the gravitational pull of Los Angeles brought him back once again. Joseph’s affinity for the entertainment industry was not yet spent. His new editorial position cycled him through various clientele, including TMZ, DirecTV, and even a return to his old stomping ground, Fox Sports. His success in the industry was not enough to satisfy him. “I was successful, but I wasn’t fulfilled,” he realized. “I had to figure out who I was.”

Joseph’s venture into Judaism didn’t come in the form of a sudden epiphany. Neither was it a product of his childhood. Joseph recalls, “I was 29 years old and I had no faith. I certainly didn’t know who God was. I was very anti-religion for a while.” It was a strange beginning for a rabbi, and the seed was sown amidst adoration and respect for his grandfather. Joseph fondly describes him as a fun and loving man, dancing and making people laugh even as his body was wracked with cancer. As the end approached for his grandfather, their final conversation together etched itself into Joseph’s memory. “Put your faith in God and know that everything will be okay,” his grandfather advised. Even without any other basis for this faith, Joseph intuited there was something deeper in his grandfather’s words which he was compelled to explore. He planned a trip to Jerusalem that was destined to be different from any prior journey.

Rabbi Joseph’s work on the streets of Jerusalem bridged the gap between his work in the entertainment industry and his budding interest in Judaism. His film endeavor, titled the “One Wish Project,” drove him to interact with countless strangers, to whom he posed the question, “If you had one wish that would come true by the end of the day, what would it be?” With the success of the videos, the project grew into a global educational platform.

Driven deeper into his Judaic studies by the success of his film, Joseph enjoyed the Jewish texts with a new awe, asking himself, “How come I wasn’t exposed to this kind of learning?” It struck home; this is what he’d been looking for his whole life. The void that had been following him like a shadow across careers and countries had finally begun to dissipate. An inner urge to teach emerged, and in a strange synchronicity, the dean of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies suggested that Joseph become a rabbi. “Yeah, yeah, yeah; you and everybody else who has been telling me for however long,” Joseph scoffed. Unperturbed, his dean replied, “It’s about time you started listening.” Those resonant words uncovered another profound realization for Joseph: all of his life, he’d allowed his choices to be dictated by fear. Contemplating the decision to become a rabbi, he divulges, “It was what I was afraid of the most, and I knew if I didn’t do it, fear would be what dominated and ruled my life.”

Fresh out of rabbinical school, Joseph took his first job as a rabbi at Beit T’Shuvah. Beyond learning about his new responsibilities, he’s also absorbed insights about himself through the workings of Beit T’Shuvah. “The beautiful thing about Beit T’Shuvah is that you have to be real and authentic, and you have to show all your cards. The idea that I am a rabbi and I have ‘arrived’ wasn’t appealing to me. I have learned so much in the last five months. We are not human beings, we are human becomings.” The central teachings of t’shuvah—repentance, return, and transformation—have dramatically changed Rabbi Joseph’s relationships. Today, he is more willing to take responsibility for his role in various interpersonal conflicts.

Working with addicts is the bread and butter of Beit T’Shuvah. Rabbi Joseph sees a little bit of addiction in everyone, stating, “addiction is a human problem. How do we live in this crazy, beautiful world and be our best selves?” Joseph hopes to reach clients and residents on a deeply personal level. He describes his philosophy as “being able to see my story reflected in the person in front of me,” and Rabbi Joseph’s story has taken him across vast expanses of both the world and the soul. Growing through his experiences, Rabbi Joseph now carries with him an inner reservoir of wisdom that he provides to the Beit T’Shuvah community. With hopeful confidence, he offers, “there are miracles in every moment.”