You can always count on Berkeley to provide an alternative take on anything, so I expected nothing less from the High Holiday services I attended Friday night, put on by Kehilla Community Synagogue, one of several alternative congregations in Berkeley.
From parents chasing toddlers down the aisles and the skateboard-toting teenager to the overt progressive political references and the warm, community feel, one had no doubt that these services were far from typical.
Originally founded in 1983, Kehilla is part of a growing number of Jewish congregations that are part of the Jewish renewal movement founded by Rabbis Shlomo Carlebach and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.
As defined by the ALEPH: Alliance For Jewish Renewal, Jewish renewal is a trans-denominational sect grounded in Judaism's prophetic and mystical traditions but with an emphasis on tikkun olam, Hebrew for what ALEPH defines as healing the world by “promoting justice, freedom, responsibility, caring for all life and the earth that sustains all life.”
In Berkeley, Kehilla originally started as a Hebrew school, but two decades later it has grown into a flourishing community organization.
Burt Jacobson, the group’s founder and first Rabbi, said he started Kehilla to provide individualized teaching for students studying for bar and bat mitzvahs. Today the Hebrew school still exists—but now 400-plus families belong to a rapidly growing congregation.
What makes Kehilla unique depends on who you talk to, but for many it’s an alternative take to what they have found to be an oppressive and stuffy experience. Members say it is a way for them to be Jewish, but in a non-traditional and much more accepting way.
Jacobson said he founded Kehilla as a way to mesh convergent parts of his life—his political commitment and his spiritual needs. An anti-nuclear activist, he found himself stranded after the coalition he worked with fell apart. He was also part of the renewal movement that was growing at the time and decided to create “a progressive and religious community that would stick together.”
“I was never really comfortable with the secular political view. It didn’t account for everything,” Jacobson said.
From its inception, Kehilla confronted political issues such as the Israel/Palestine conflict from a balanced perspective, advocating for a just solution for both sides—an approach that attracted some and dissuaded others.
“In the early years there were a lot of people who wouldn’t touch us with a 10-foot pole,” said Jacobson.
Jewish renewal according to ALEPH was heavily influenced by the women’s movement, and so Kehilla has also made a concerted effort to critique and overcome what Jacobson calls the patriarchal aspect of Judaism.
For several years, Jacobson said, Kehilla was called “the dyke synagogue” for its stance on equality for homosexuals.
Kehilla’s commitment to spirituality is strong, and Jacobson said that, for many, the mystical and traditional roots of Judaism still offer a way to understand and adapt to the modern and postmodern world.
This mix has created a welcoming environment for many Jews—myself included—who, like Jacobson, find that Judaism is a part our lives that works in combination with other themes. And for many, belonging to Kehilla is a way to be Jewish but unconfined and comfortable without being overly religious.
High Holiday celebrations are a way for many Jews to be Jewish once a year. Like Christians on Christmas or Easter, Jews turn out en masse for the celebrations and Kehilla congregants are no exception—with several times the normal attendance showing up at the Scottish Rite center in downtown Oakland, one of the few regional venues large enough to accommodate the massive turnout.
Throughout the services, Kehilla’s unique appeal was front and center, as the congregation sang, danced, meditated and celebrated the beginning of the Jewish year 5764.
Women wore yarmulkes, traditional religious headgear usually reserved for only men. Screaming kids—who usually take away from an event—only added to the warmness, as mom and dads, sisters and brothers rocked and cooed to them.
New Rabbi David Cooper addressed the audience in a warm, welcoming tone as the cantor and others sang songs that filled the auditorium and moved many to tears.
Like many others, I left the services renewed and invigorated—unlike the stiff, unfulfilled feelings I’d often experienced after other more traditional services.
Kehilla was not the sole alternative. Over the weekend, several other organizations and synagogues also catered to the unique demands of Berkeley’s Jewish High Holiday attendees.
The Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center (JCC) offered a free service at a time when tickets for other services are usually expensive and hard to come by. Executive Director Joel Bashevkin said that the center has been offering a free service for years to people who couldn’t get tickets to other services or who do not belong to a synagogue.
“All the people who don’t get into the other services get sent to the JCC,” Basheukin said.
Even the more traditional synagogues, including Beth El, Berkeley’s largest Reform congregation, make an effort to accommodate the wide range of people who attend services.
With over 500 families, Beth El offered two services, with parts of the congregation spilling into the nearby Episcopalian Church for a special service. Rabbi Ferenc Raj said the two services were held both because of attendance but also because the earlier service was more liberal and the later more conservative.
As with all the other congregations, the Beth El services focused on self examination as a way to prepare and improve for the new year.
The cycle of services still isn’t over, so there are still opportunities to attend the Yom Kippur eve and day services which mark the end of the 10-day celebration period that started last Friday.
Kehilla will have services Sunday, Oct. 5 and Monday, Oct. 6. For more information call 527-5452 ext. 11. Beth El will also offer services on the Oct. 5 and 6. For more information call 848-3988. The JCC will also have services on the Oct. 6. For more information call 848-0237 x 6.