By Bill Lazarus
Rabbi Gray Myrseth grew up in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood. Their father is Jewish and from the midwest, while their mother is from Norway and is not Jewish. Although their family did not, at the time, find a Jewish community that felt like a good fit, home practice and holiday observance “was the center” of their Jewish upbringing.
In college, at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Gray found their way to a nondenominational spiritual community on campus attracting many unaffiliated Jews, along with students who grew up Quaker and in other traditions. The community grew, its chaplain left, and Gray and a friend stepped in to keep the community on track. They also grew to love studying the text of the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, as it was referred to in the academic context.
After graduating from college in 2010, Gray went on to Hebrew College in Boston where they found that they “loved learning how to study Talmud. It’s a text of such creativity and inventiveness.”
Talmud, they add, “is the document of our ancestors trying to figure out how to live and how to practice religion after the destruction of the second temple” in 70 CE. With the destruction of the temple, Judaism lost its centralized location and moved in a diasporic direction. “Don’t worry about it, you can practice religion where you live,” Rabbi Gray says, explaining the new outlook. “It’s kind of risky to create something beautiful,” they say, adding that rabbinic Judaism and the study of Talmud arose from “courage, resilience, and hope.”
This spring, Rabbi Gray will be teaching a Talmud class for Kehilla and Chochmat HaLev congregants, as well as the wider community, where “all you need to get in the door is your Alef Bet.” The “700 Benches” class will focus on a section from Tractate Bava Metzia that deals with questions of leadership, authority, and ownership of Torah.
As director of Kehilla School since the summer of 2017, Rabbi Gray strives to create a “Jewish setting where young people feel loved and embraced.” They find that “young people are endlessly surprising. They always see solutions and interpretations and possibilities that I never had an idea of.” Rabbi Gray’s goal is “to facilitate a learning setting where young people are free to unfurl.”
In studying the Torah portion where the Jews crossed the sea to freedom with Kehilla School students, Rabbi Gray asked for explanations of the midrash that the people sang as they crossed rather than breaking into a celebratory song after the crossing. Answers came quickly. “One student said maybe the people were singing to get themselves to keep walking. Another suggested that the singing was out of gratitude that the path was clear. Another said that singing together can turn a group of people into a community rather than a bunch of individuals and that the community made it possible to keep going.”
At Kehilla, too, Gray has found community. “There’s a real spirit of collaboration, a real centering,” they say. “People are so ready of pitch in. I feel really lucky. It’s exciting.”