Senior Rabbi Yoel Kahn gave his first service at Congregation Beth El Friday night, marking the first time the congregation has had an openly gay rabbi.
“It went well,” said Kahn. “We had about 150 people in attendance. We also got a new prayer book. I think people are excited.”
Berkeley Councilmember Kriss Worthington, also openly gay, said he enjoyed the service.
“It was more emotional than the average service since it was the first one,” noted Worthington. “He also invited members of the rabbi search committee up to join him.”
The rabbi search committee had been meeting to find a new rabbi, due to the retirement of the previous one.
Katherine Haynes Sanstad, president of Congregation Beth El and chair of the search committee, said that the choice to pick Kahn wasn’t difficult. She also noted that the committee unanimously voted to elect Kahn as senior rabbi.
“We did an international search with candidates as far as Australia,” said Haynes Sanstad. “We wanted to find a person who had the skills to bring deep meaning to the traditions of Judaism and Beth El, and Rabbi Kahn was head and shoulders above all other applicants in that respect.”
During the first two days at his post, there were two deaths in the congregation.
“He has already hit the ground running and provided families with the grace and compassion they need in this hard time and has asked the community to do the same,” added Haynes Sanstad.
Kahn, a native of the Bay Area, graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and went to Jerusalem to study at Hebrew University. He was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1985. Then, he returned to the Bay Area and completed his graduate studies, receiving his Ph.D. through the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. He has been a rabbi for the past 22 years, eleven at the Congregation ShaAr Zahaz in San Francisco.
When asked why he became a rabbi, Kahn responded, “I like Jewish stuff. I think that the Jewish spiritual tradition is connected to community and culture. I try to model and teach these traditions.”
Rabbi Kahn and his partner Dan Bellm have been married for 25 years and have a 15-year-old son, Adam.
“This is a man who has been involved in synagogue renewal for the past decade,” mentioned Haynes Sanstad. “He is incredibly gifted and talented.”
Members of the public are invited to attend services on Friday nights at 6:15 p.m. and Saturday mornings at 10 a.m at Congregation Beth El at 1301 Oxford St.