Jake Renner was feeling depressed. An actor and part-time Uber driver, he hadn’t picked up passengers for a year-and-a-half. On a sunny September morning in Los Angeles, Renner decided that it was time to get his life back together. He’d recently quit drinking and was trying to infuse his life with more spirituality. His first ride request in months came through. It was an airport job and Renner almost declined it, concerned that the suitcases might scratch his car. But something compelled him to accept it.

Avi Mogilevsky, 32, an entrepreneur from Atlanta, got into the Uber. He was headed to the airport, returning home, straight from the brit milah celebration (circumcision) of a dear friend’s son in Los Angeles.

Mogilevsky spent the first part of the ride speaking on the phone, telling his wife about the brit he’d just attended. “That irked me. My car is not your office; it’s our time to talk,” Renner told Chabad.org. Mogilevsky’s phone call revolved around Judaism, and irksomeness aside, Renner was intrigued. When the call ended, Mogilevsky proved to be a warm, jovial passenger, and the two spent the rest of the ride engaged in conversation.

Renner brought up his own Jewish heritage, informing his passenger that while Jake Renner is his stage name, his actual name is Jake Berezovski, which is his Jewish Ukrainian mother’s last name. Mogilevsky had Renner bring the car to a stop and put on tefillin. It was Renner’s first time doing the mitzvah.

Renner, who was raised Christian, studied at a theological seminary after high school and was ordained as a minister. For a time, he preached, and led services and funerals. But Christianity never really spoke to him, he said, and when he went back to visit Ukraine after moving to California, his mother told him that she was orphaned of her Jewish parents at the age of 7, and was raised Christian. Something clicked for Renner when his mother told him about their background and since then, he said he often thought about his Jewish identity and what that meant to him.

The quick roadside mitzvah wasn’t enough for either party, and the two exchanged numbers. Mogilevsky, who’d volunteered at a Chabad orphanage in Ukraine years before and is of Russian heritage himself, developed a rapport with the Ukrainian-born Uber driver. “He understood me,” said Renner.

Wearing tefillin after the brit, Renner embraces Mogilevsky.
Wearing tefillin after the brit, Renner embraces Mogilevsky.

Mogilevsky, knowing that many Jews hailing from the former Soviet Union never had the opportunity to be circumcised, tactfully brought it up with Renner.

Renner entertained the thought for almost a month before he decided he would do it. He told Mogilevsky of his decision, but also pointed out that he couldn’t afford it (an adult brit is typically performed in a medical setting with a doctor observing the procedure). Mogilevsky immediately assured Renner that he would foot the bill. “I’ve been asking G‑d for help; now I need to do something for Him,” said Renner, explaining his decision.

Yaakov, Son of Avraham

On Nov. 14, Mogilevsky flew to California and joined Renner and the mohel, Rabbi Nachman Kreiman, for the ceremony. After the circumcision, Mogilevsky recited the blessing and gave Jake his chosen Jewish name. “ ... And his name shall be known amongst Israel as Yaakov, the son of Avraham,” Mogilevsky chanted, giving Jake—now Yaakov—his chosen Jewish name after the third patriarch, Jacob, the protagonist of that week’s Torah portion.

“This is a sign of recognition that you are a Jew,” noted Mogilevsky, speaking after the ceremony. “At age 38, you chose to do this beautiful mitzvah. This is what Yiddishkeit is about. We’re all brothers, and the Rebbe [Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory] taught us to reach out to every Jew with love, and that’s why I am here today.”

Speaking with Chabad.org after his circumcision, Renner said that physically, he’s feeling better, and spiritually, “I feel serenity, a feeling of being reunited.”

Los Angeles-based friends of Mogilevsky’s have been very supportive, said Renner. Levi Nagel is buying him a pair of tefillin, while Shlomie and Nechamy Levin have been sending him homemade meals as he recovers at home. Renner hopes that this will be another step in his Jewish journey, as he begins to explore his heritage and connect with his people.

“I feel welcomed by the Jewish community,” said a grateful Renner. “This is just the beginning for me.”