Photo and story by Bill Lazarus
Despite and partly because of her deep roots in Catholicism, when Barbara Petterson first attended a Kehilla service some 30 years ago she felt immediately at home in a community to which she could connect spiritually and intellectually.
For the past three years, Barbara has served as co-chair of Kehilla’s board, first as co-chair with Nancy Feinstein, then chair, then co-chair again with Karen Cohn. This month she is leaving her co-chair position to Karen and another board member. Barbara will stay on the board.
Her relationship to Judaism is interestingly complex. “I practice Judaism, but I don’t consider myself to be Jewish. It’s somewhat of an enigma,” Barbara says, adding that she appreciates that at Kehilla, “We’re willing to sit with questions and there’s no pressure to toe a party line – that you have to believe this or that in order to be here.”
Barbara still thinks as part of herself as Catholic, albeit something of a renegade. She doesn’t appreciate that the church is “so hierarchical and oppressive… In general, the structure of the Catholic Church is you accept what the pope and the priests say… at Kehilla we all get to have our personal relationship with God.” She recalls Rabbi David talking at her first service about “wrestling with God” as “part of being a good Jew. That part of it was so wonderful.”
Her friend Sandy Bredt brought her to that first service. Her husband David Lee, who is Jewish but was raised in a secular home, initially hesitated to dive in. So, for several years they just attended high holiday services.
Barbara liked that a number of prayers were similar and sometimes close to the same as Catholic liturgy, recalling being moved upon hearing “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” during high holidays.
Still, “when I grew up as a Catholic, a lot of time I felt cut off from my body. One of the things I love about Kehilla is being able to be in the body. To get up and dance.”
On social justice issues, Barbara saw a split in the church, along with a level of hypocrisy. In contrast, Kehilla “feels much more unified” in bringing together tikkun olam and tikkun hanefesh,” repair of the world and of the spirit.
Nonetheless, Barbara says of the Church, “It’s still a part of my history, a part of my identity.” She says, “I’d have to do some surgery to take that out of me.” Barbara finds she is still moved at times upon walking into a church.
Her daughter Rosa may find the same in renewal shuls. Rosa, 22, graduates from UC Santa Cruz this month. In her first year, she was part of a protest over police violence and fee hikes across the UC system, and was suspended from school for joining in an action in which she and other students chained themselves to garbage cans and stopped traffic for hours on the main highway into town. Rosa received support from Kehilla – Rabbi David invited her to write a column for Kol Kehilla about her experience, and he and Rabbi Dev wrote letters of support for Rosa’s appeal of her suspension.
“To me, that was so emblematic of Kehilla — this embrace and encouragement of political activism and acting on one’s values,” Barbara says. “I feel that Kehilla walks its talk.” She also appreciates that Kehilla “does a profound job” in working with its youth. “I always thought her teachers and spiritual leaders saw Rosa as a person. Now “I think Kehilla is really in her bones.”
When not dancing at services and wrestling with board issues, Barbara practices as a marriage and family therapist, dealing with a range of issues including depression and anxiety, aging and identity as well as chronic pain. She has master’s degrees in counseling and art therapy.
One favorite therapy is physically as well as emotionally grounded. “For people dealing with chronic pain, I bring in all sorts of sculptural material — clay, fabric, rocks, shells, beads, clothespins, and hardware material – screws, locks, all sorts of things. I ask people to make a pain monster.”
“It’s quite a powerful thing,” Barbara says. “Putting pain into a form takes it out of us. It provides a bit of distance, an aha moment. We share it in a group and are not so alone.”
These days, given her many involvements at Kehilla, Barbara might find it difficult to be alone. But that’s not so much a problem. “The people are so much of what has kept us a Kehilla. We’ve created a web in our lives with so many relationships — from deep, long friendships to just people we might look across the room and make eye contact with.”
Having added 50 families this year the congregation now stands at some 438 families. With growth has come a sounder financial footing.
Also with the growth, Barbara says, an overarching question is “how do we continue to be what makes Kehilla Kehilla?” She sees the answer as a continued “strong sense of ownership among the members”.
She says the ownership continues to play out in several initiatives that have arisen in the past two years from members, including giving assistance to immigrant families along with developing plans to offer sanctuary, efforts to protect our democracy, addressing issues of racial justice within Kehilla, tackling housing and class issues, developing a Kehilla space at Mt. View Cemetery, and spurring living room conversations about end-of-life issues.
Barbara is so grateful to have had the opportunity to serve as co-chair of the board, and to have worked so closely with Michael Saxe-Taller, Rabbis Dev, David and Burt, her co-chairs Nancy Feinstein and Karen Cohn, and the rest of the board. Barbara’s vision is that Kehilla will continue to exist while staying rooted to creative change and the activism of its members and rabbis.