by Michael Saxe-Taller, Executive Director
[From Rabbi David: After many collective hours of interviews with wonderful candidates, our search committee’s recommendation to hire Michael Saxe-Taller as our new Executive Director was accepted by the Board of Trustees. It is exciting to have on board someone who is steeped in the values of Kehilla and has engaged in the same issues from childhood on. This revealing article by Michael is a great way to start to get to know him.]
“If Kehilla Synagogue had existed while I was growing up, my life would have been very different.” It was with that sentence that I began the cover letter of my application to be the Executive Director of Kehilla. I have repeated that phrase a number of times since I came aboard in January and the more I see and learn about this community, the more I know how accurate that statement is.
I grew up in Berkeley, the youngest child of a secular, politically progressive Jewish family. I have memories of collecting medical supplies for the Farm Workers and never eating grapes (they were always being boycotted). My parents’ wish for me was not that I would be famous or make a lot of money, but rather that I do good work that benefited the community and society that I lived in.
We had an active Jewish family life with Rosh Hashana dinner, building a sukkah, and a terrific Seder with a self-produced haggadah and yearly calls for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. What we didn’t have was a Jewish community that we called our own. My folks joined a synagogue so we could get a Jewish education, but neither my brother and I nor my parents felt fully at home there. My mom (Dolores Taller, a current Kehilla member) joined their Israel Committee and soon was being seen as a radical for calling for a two-state solution. I found services to be uninspiring and the education seemed irrelevant to me.
I felt disconnected from the other Jews at religious school and was largely invisible as a Jew in public school. It didn’t look to me like there was any place that I could be proud and pleased with both my values and my heritage. Within two weeks of completing my Bar Mitzvah, I was done with the synagogue and communal Jewish life for what turned out to be over a decade.
While a student at Oberlin College, I came into my own as a social justice activist, co-founding and co-leading the Student Organization Against Racism (SOAR). At the same time, I had basically given up any kind of Jewish life. That is until I was challenged by one of my mentors, Tommy Woon, the Asian American Counselor Coordinator. He approached me immediately after I had given a speech at an Asian-American Symposium.
“Michael, you talked for 15 minutes about being a white ally against racism yet never said you were Jewish.”
“So,” I replied defensively.
“It’s important. Did you ever notice that most of the white people in SOAR are Jews?”
Clearly, I hadn’t noticed. But I did that day, and it struck me that it couldn’t have been a coincidence that so many Jews cared passionately about ending racism, and it couldn’t have been so with me, either. That conversation led me on a slow journey back towards Judaism, which reached a peak five years later in Israel, when I decided to fully reengage with Jewish tradition, observance, Torah and Jewish community.
Upon returning to Berkeley, I came face to face with the same dilemma I had as a young person – can I be visible both as a Jew and as a fighter for justice? Fortunately, things were changing in the Bay Area Jewish community. Kehilla had been founded and my parents had immediately become members. I soon began working in the Jewish community with teens at Midrasha and with college students at Berkeley Hillel. That was the beginning of a career in which I helped create Jewish communities that welcomed people with all of their values, identities and heritages.
This past fall, I returned to Kehilla, as my close friend, Anya Tucker, became Bat Mitzvah. As I listened to Anya speak about confronting violence against women and then joined a long line of people dancing around the sanctuary singing joyously in Hebrew, I was struck that this was what I needed when I was a young person, a community where I would be held and cared for and be able to be proud and public with both my politics and my tradition.
So, what a blessing it is for me to have the chance to be part of Kehilla now. I, along with my life partner, Julie, and our son Sam, look forward to joining in and building this marvelous community for years to come.