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Reflections on Kehilla at 30

30th anniversary-celebrating 30 yearsby Rabbi David J. Cooper


Kehilla was born 30 years ago in a period of people building “intentional communities.” We were one of the many experiments in this genre. As for me, I watched these communities come and go and I didn’t necessarily expect this one to last any longer than the others.

I heard that Rabbi Burt Jacobson was trying to put together a politically progressive Jewish Renewal synagogue. Sounded good. What I knew of Jewish Renewal was the Aquarian Minyan and I loved it, but I wanted something that was more politically involved.

I was inspired by the Christian Base communities of Latin America where a local church was the center of a community both in its ritual life and in its efforts to resist oppression. I was also inspired by the Washington DC organization, Fabrangen, which was both spiritual and politically active and where Arthur Waskow had been active.

I knew Rabbi Burt from Livermore Action Group which held coordinated but decentralized protests against the continued development of nuclear weapons. Burt had organized a Jewish support group within LAG with which I was familiar, but I couldn’t join it because I was an attorney at that time and my work in LAG was taken up by my providing legal assistance. But I was impressed by Burt’s group and I remembered him.

Burt was proposing something that was a bit weird in early Jewish Renewal and even weirder among intentional communities. He wanted to structure this new community as a synagogue—not a chavurah, not a minyan, but a shul with a school and a Bar/Bat Mitzvah program, adult education. The whole shebang – but no building.

I was married to Linda Hirschhorn at the time and both of us had pretty extensive Jewish backgrounds and education. The constituency Burt was reaching, East Bay progressives, were not necessarily well-steeped in Jewish stuff so Linda’s and my backgrounds in the tradition could be of value in this project of Burt’s. Linda could provide singing for our major services and I could provide lay service leadership. And Linda and I were thinking about having a child or children and I thought it would be a great congregation in which to raise kids, well, if the synagogue actually lasted that long.

Around that time, I was approached by some folks who had some funding to put together an Israel/Palestine peace organization and offered me the possibility of working as an organizer of this effort. I visited one of our great leftist thinkers in Berkeley, Ricky Sherover Marcuse of blessed memory with whom I shared an attachment to the work of the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci. I asked her, “What do you think Gramsci would consider more subversive – another Jewish leftist political organization or a radical synagogue?” As I recall she said something like, “If you already know the answer, why are you asking me?” So with that encouragement, I decided to go with this Kehilla experiment and see how far we could take it.

Ten years ago I realized that I was part of Kehilla for longer than any of the Jewish institutions in which I had grown up. My children grew up in its embrace and they not only were educated by Kehilla, they became educators within Kehilla. Some remark that Talia and Lev are like the fruit that falls not far from the tree, and when folks say this they mean me and Linda and the other important adults in the lives of my now adult children. Yes, probably, but I think that Kehilla is the tree that seeded them and also so many of the young adults who have become leaders, organizers, teachers, activists for whom their values of social justice are part and parcel of their Jewishness.

So on balance, it looks like the experiment succeeded. Long may it continue.

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