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On the Origins of Kehilla

by Rabbi Burt Jacobson

Note: This is the third of a series of personal essays that I will be publishing monthly in Kol Kehilla. In each article I will share the origins of one of the ideals and/or values that motivated me to start Kehilla. The essays are adapted from the manuscript of the book I am in the process of completing, tentatively titled There is Only One Love: The Ba’al Shem Tov in the Modern World.

An Era of Liberation

It is impossible to convey in writing the excitement, the anxiety, the sheer intensity of the mid to late 1960s and the early 1970s. It was an era of instability and radical change characterized by the uprising against racism, the anguish of the war in Viet Nam, and the freedom and confusion generated by the sexual revolution. The civil rights movement was followed by the anti-war movement, and these, in turn, led to the campaigns for women’s liberation and gay and lesbian rights. Large numbers of young Jews were involved in all of these undertakings, but most especially in movements focused on political activism. Michael E. Staub has shown that there was a disproportionate presence of young Jews in the New Left, and among them there were many groups that maintained both a commitment to New Left activism and fostered a strong Jewish religious and ethnic identity.

Looking back at that fateful time, it seems to me that if there was an underlying passion driving this idealistic engagement, it derived from a populist insistence on broadening the promise of American democracy and freeing our country from the grip of those leaders and institutions that resisted such change.

The various social-political movements of the time were central to that quest. The New Left spearheaded the drive to end the war in Viet Nam, championing liberation from American imperialism and from the machinations of the military-industrial complex. At the same time there was a parallel search for personal and interpersonal liberation epitomized by the hippie movement, with its celebration of non-conformism and its experimentation with radical egalitarian modes of communal living. But hippies were also early champions of environmentalism, natural foods and Eastern spirituality.

Though the values of these two streams of the counter culture seemed antithetical, the boundaries between them often became blurred, most especially through the experimentation with freer modes of sexual relationships, the powerful connection with folk and rock music, and the exploration of alternate states of consciousness through psychedelic drugs. Gregory Sams has suggested that “ . . . it was the wholesale ingestion of psychedelics that enabled large numbers of a new generation to break out of a mental straightjacket that has constrained our dominant Western thought processes for far too long.”

I escaped from the East Coast in the early 1970s, dreaming of life in California. I spent a few years looking for a commune to live in, visiting many experimental communities around the state. None of them were quite right. But I was immensely interested in new models of education and I moved to San Francisco in order to teach at Symbas Experimental High School, a “free school” in which teachers and students related to one another in an open and equal way.

Most of the kids came from hippie homes. It was a radically different way of educating children. All classes were optional and there was no pressure to conform to adult ideas of growing up. In that environment I opened up emotionally and lost many inhibitions, and I learned how to relate to my students in egalitarian ways. Symbas was part of Project One, a warehouse community in the South of Market district of the city. Project One was a haven for hippies and political radicals.

Of course at the time I didn’t know that all this would be part of my preparation for the founding of Kehilla. Both radical politics and hippie cultural and spiritual values would eventually play their part in forging a blueprint for a novel kind of synagogue-community, giving a new kind of life to East Bay Jews searching for spiritual depth and progressive politics.

My experiences at Symbas also contributed to the ideas that formed the basis for Kehilla School and most especially the Bar/Bat Mitzvah program. As Debby Enelow and I began to plan what became Kehilla School, we both came to feel that Jewish education needed to become more informal, open and intimate, a kind of apprenticeship in which teachers and students could learn from one another and form strong and affectionate bonds with one another. The dream has become a reality thanks to the quality of teachers that have been attracted to teaching at Kehilla through these many years.

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