Jamming with the Grateful Dead, living in Israel, being in a band and serving as an Orthodox rabbi are not usually associated with one another, but in the case of Rabbi Moshe Shur, all of these embody exactly who he is.
For the past 35 years Shur has been the director at the Queens College Hillel, but before arriving in Flushing there were many stops along the way, Shur said. Growing up in Detroit, Shur’s family belonged to a traditional Conservative synagogue, but he was not the least religious, he said.
As a young adult, he became active in Judaism and music. He participated in the United Synagogue Youth and was the music leader at Camp Ramah in California. Music and Judaism are not just a big part of his being but go hand in hand in life, he said.
“Music is one of the openings to the spiritual realm,” Shur said.
In 1962, he attended Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he met one of the most influential people in his life, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.He was one of the original members of the Diaspora Yeshiva Band.
Shur is also well known for being active in the civil rights movement. While attending Columbia, he was the chairman of Summer Community Opportunity and Political Education and went with the organization to Atlanta, where he became its national chairman for the organization.
At the age of 21, he met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Shur said growing up he was “taught to help the underdog,” which is why he believed being active in the civil rights movement was important. Marching with King had a tremendous impact on Shur’s life, he said. King along with John and Robert Kennedy were the first three funerals that Shur participated in.
“You didn’t know what you were doing at the time,” he said. “Being a college student, it was the right thing to do at the time.”
After obtaining his law degree at Wayne State University and his master’s degree in Near Eastern languages and literature at the University of Michigan, he decided to move to San Francisco.
When Shur made the trek out west in 1969, he became part of Carlebach’s traveling band of musicians. Some of his musical influences were groups like the Supremes, Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin. Shur said he loved California because he was able to jam out with bands such as the Grateful Dead and experience great music.
Today he’s known as the Rockin’ Rabbi.
After living in California for five years, Shur realized he wanted to find his Jewish roots. In 1974 he moved to Israel, where he attended the Diaspora Yeshiva Rabbinical School in Jerusalem. For someone who didn’t define himself as religious, going to Israel was a soul-searching experience, he said.
While attending school, his love for Judaism and music grew and became a huge part of him, he said. He joined the Diaspora Yeshiva Band, became Orthodox and realized he wanted to become a rabbi. However, many people who knew him weren’t pleased with his transformation from Conservative to an Orthodox rabbi.
“I was breaking the mold,” he said. “Orthodox wasn’t a good thing.”
Shur lived in Israel for three years, where he met and married his wife Shoshana. He eventually became the rabbi at the Hillel at the University of Virginia, where there were very few Jewish students.
After two years as the only Orthodox couple in the area, it was time for a change, Shur said. He and his family then made the transition to Queens. When they first arrived in Flushing, there were many Jews living near Queens College, but today the area has changed greatly, he said.
“The normal American students have moved out,” he said. “People moving in are immigrants. It is the way it is.”
Along with the Diaspora Yeshiva Band, Shur has recorded 10 albums with various groups including his own Moshe Shur Band, Moshe Shur and Sons and A Shur Thing. Three of his sons, Eliyahu Dov, Mutty and Yehudah, are members of Moshe Shur and Sons. Some albums they’ve done are “Take Me Back to Jerusalem,” “The Mountains Sing,” “When the Morning Comes,” “Renaissance” and “King David Sang.” The 10 albums are a mix of folk, rock, reggae, blues, Jewish, Klezmer, and some fuision jazz.
Shur said he has no regrets about his life choices. He loves teaching people throughout the world about Jewish mysticism, teaching students at Queens College and inspiring Jews in the Queens community.
“I appreciate everything I had,” he said. “Jewish mysticism, I think it’s a gateway for people getting closer to their Jewish roots.”
Shur, who is 66, teaches history at the college and lives with his wife and together they have five children and nine grandchildren.