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Two Stories of a Rabbinic Activist

by Rabbi David J. Cooper

As I was applying for the position in 1999, the Rabbi Search Committee interviewed me. They asked, “What do you see yourself doing 10 years from now?” Huh? I guess this was what they asked all the candidates. I stumbled for a second and then said what was obvious to me. “I hope to be celebrating my 10th anniversary as Kehilla’s rabbi.”

I mean, what else would I say? Kehilla wasn’t a stepping stone to my ‘true vocational ambition’? Hey, there was no way to go any higher! Well, not for me. This was the finest position I could ever imagine, where my Jewish training and leadership and my political activism could be utilized to their fullest. And all this in the context of a synagogue community that I loved deeply.

So now on February 12, we’re going to be celebrating my 18 years of work in Kehilla, especially my social action leadership. So I thought I’d share a story or two about this.

Story 1: A Left Synagogue to Subvert the Hegemony

I was an organizer before Kehilla. Following my work in Abalone Alliance against the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in 1981 or ‘82, I served as a legal observer for the Livermore Action Group against nuclear weapons. I met Rabbi Burt, who was heading a Jewish support group in LAG and was glad that there was a Jewish clergy person involved. You see, I had grown up with a pretty extensive Jewish education, but my activism and Judaism rarely coincided.

My then wife, Linda Hirschhorn, and I heard that Burt was trying to organize a leftist synagogue and so we went to a few meetings he led. I realized it needed some serious organizing, but I had just been offered the opportunity to organize a Jewish action group to focus on Israel/Palestine peace issues.

Well, I knew Ricky Sherover Marcuse, Herbert Marcuse’s wife, and we shared a common interest in the political theory of the great Italian Marxist thinker, Antonio Gramsci, who advocated organizing on cultural lines, and not only on economic and political interests. I asked, “Which is more apt to subvert the hegemonic paradigm from Gramsci’s perspective, organizing a leftist synagogue, or a Jewish policy group on Israel/Palestine?” To which Ricky responded something like, “If you already know, why ask me?” And it occurred to me that here in the Reagan years we could use a “Jewish base community,” a synagogue of resistance. But it couldn’t be a disguised front for a political organization — it had to be real. I felt this in my guts in a way that exceeded any previous organizing I’d done. And it was because I knew I wanted children and I wanted them raised and connected to a synagogue where Judaism and progressive social action were of a whole cloth.

Story 2: Non-Christmas Carols and Workers’ Rights

It was December 1999. I had been serving as rabbi for less than three months. My mom was visiting and staying at the hotel on the Berkeley Marina. I drove over to pick her up, and having fetched her from her room, we were going through the lobby to go out. And there sitting on the floor on either side of the hallway were several people, a few of whom were wearing clerical collars. And they were singing lyrics about workers’ rights to Christmas carol melodies. We got to the car. Mom said, “How nice! They’re singing carols to the hotel guests.” “No mom, those are protest songs about some sort of labor problem at the hotel.”

The next day’s news reported that the hotel was filing for a restraining order against the union representing the workers who were fighting for a contract. The suit alleged that the union had sent in people to sing in the hotel hallway, interfering with the guests’ enjoyment of the premises. Using my legal training, I quickly wrote an affidavit that said my mom very much enjoyed the singing in the lobby and that we were not at all inconvenienced. I sent it to the union and a union rep called me at Kehilla. They hadn’t needed my affidavit since they had already won against the restraining order.

“But we see you’re a rabbi. Would be willing to talk to Nicole Lee from the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice?” Nicole came to my offices at Northbrae Community Church. The committee was a project of EBASE (the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy), which had only been around a few months. “Who else is on it?” I asked. The first on the list was activist priest — and friend of Cesar Chavez — Father Bill O’Donnell, who I had worked with earlier in the Sanctuary Movement. Yes, sure, any opportunity to work with Father Bill! I joined then and there. I’m not only the longest serving member of the committee, now called FAME (Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy), but the longest serving activist in EBASE.

Although Father Bill died 16 years ago, I have been continuously provided with a close network of committed and radical clergy who have inspired and upheld me during all these years that I have served Kehilla as rabbi.

And now I’m planning to remain in FAME and to stay active in Kehilla’s social action — and to be a spiritual leader in this, my “Jewish base community,” which has been my home for over 32 years, and hopefully, many more years to come.


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