Kehilla Community Synagogue: An Interview with Dr. Ron Glass
Written by Georgie Blewett
Illustrated by Rachel Ledeboer
Photo courtesy of the SSRC at UCSC
Dr. Ronald Glass is a philosopher of education and Director of the Center for Collaborative Research for an Equitable California at UC Santa Cruz. He received his Ph.D. in Philosophy of Education and M.A. in Philosophy from Stanford University, as well as a C.Phil in Philosophy of Education from UC Berkeley and an Ed.M. and B.A. from Harvard University. I was interested in interviewing Professor Glass after he mentioned to our Critical Pedagogy class that he had been elected to the first Board of Trustees of Kehilla Community Synagogue, a synagogue founded in the 1980s in Berkeley, California, that he described as progressive and unconventional in the way of traditional Jewish practices.
Georgie: What does Kehilla mean?
Ron: It means “community”. Kehilla Community Synagogue essentially means “community community community”.
G: Interesting. Was that intentional?
G: Were you a spear-header of Kehilla?
R: Well, Kehilla was founded by Rabbi Burt Jacobson, and by the first cantor, a woman named Linda Hirschorn. The first services that they organized were High Holiday services. I knew both of them from anti-nuclear weapons work, and doing anti-racism work. So when they were organizing those High Holiday services, someone called me and said, “Hey, Burt and Linda are doing this thing, you should go, and you’ll finally have a Jewish home.” So I went to the first services they organized, and not only did I know them, but I knew a whole bunch of the other people.
I started getting involved with them, and when they organized the first Board of Trustees, I was elected. My role in the synagogue on the Board in the first years was in part to mediate between the synagogue community that was being formed, and Rabbi Jacobson, so I wrote the initial Rabbinical contract. I was involved in the early years of creating the structure of the synagogue and how it would operate and what the basic things were. I also developed a Jewish-Black Relations Committee, which actually I organized before I was elected to the Board. We organized two inter-faith, interracial Passover Seders with the Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland. Initially we thought it would [be held] in my living room, and it ended up being 250 people each time. The second time, [there was] actually a documentary made  called Gospel Seder. We wrote a Haggadah that was both interracial and inter-faith.
I stayed very involved in Kehilla as long as I lived in Berkeley, until I moved to Arizona. We had a Chavurah, a little group that gets together for Shabbat, that included a lot of the early leadership of Kehilla in our little group, like half of the members of the initial Board. We got together once a month and did Shabbat as families, so we all had our kids. We’re still close friends. It’s 35 years later and my kids are grown, their kids are grown. We’ve all stayed really close. Some of the people in that group have remained in the leadership of Kehilla all this time. But I’ve still remained a member of Kehilla 25 years after leaving Berkeley. I still go back for High Holidays.
G: What were the motivating factors behind creating a less traditional synagogue? Like what kind of qualms did you have with traditional Jewish practices?
R: Other than it being patriarchal?
G: Right, exactly.
R: Well, that was one of the really big things. So at Kehilla, Rabbi Jacobson and a few others who were part of that initial founding group are real scholars, and they’ve rewritten most of the prayers so they’re no longer sexist. They got rid of images of G-d as “king” and this very kind of dominant kind of view by substituting many other words that are different aspects of G-d that are more feminine. So all the basic prayers got rewritten in some ways. Then another important founding principle of the synagogue was that we were formally committed to a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict; I think we were the first synagogue in the United States, some 35 years ago, to formally declare a commitment to a two-state solution. That was quite a big thing to be a synagogue to integrate that as a founding principle. Still now, even more than before, Kehilla is trying to grapple with racism and coloniality. Those are big current themes. The founding group also held the view that Judaism had become both too stagnant and formal, and too much in the head, not enough in the heart. For example, everything is sung at the services which are very lively. Also from the beginning, there’s been a significant LGBTQ population that’s been part of the synagogue and both its formal and informal leadership. We have interracial families, inter-gender families, and all of that. So we’re creating a space for unaffiliated Jews who embrace very left-wing, progressive politics and are interested in bringing those politics to bear on Judaism as well.
G: Well said. My next question is how do you feel Kahilla challenges white supremacy and implements racial justice into its space?
R: Explicitly. By naming it out loud. You know, they currently have study groups where they have people who are interested [in that]. They have all kinds of social activism where they show up for people of color, in the East Bay. They go to demonstrations and organize, they show up around police brutality issues.
G: Do you face consequences at all from other Jews?
R: Of course. But the synagogue continues. The Bay Area has a big concentration of Jewish people, as does LA, and New York. So the synagogue continues to be influential and controversial, definitely. But Kehilla is only one part of a Jewish Renewal, sometimes called a movement, and though I don’t know if there are other synagogues [like Kehilla] in the movement even after all these years, it has begun to build new forms of Jewish life. Jewish renewal is mainly organized into Chavurot, rather than trying to do a big institution, even Kehilla took a long time before deciding to purchase a building, maybe a decade ago. Before that, we rented space in churches. Kehilla, the space we own now, is not big enough for High Holiday services, so we continue to rent a huge space in Oakland for that.
G: The website mentions Tikkun Olam, healing the world. How would you describe Tikkun Olam?
R: I would say it has always been a part of Judaism, and especially in recent decades it has become more prominent. The task, I think it was Rabbi Tarfon that said, “You don’t have to fix everything about the world, but you have to do something.” The notion is that every single person has a responsibility to do what they can in their own little space. Because the problems of the world reach into every space, the most intimate, from our more private sexual fantasies to our most public interactions, all those spaces are invaded by the dominant ideologies. So wherever we can move, or do something different in those spaces, Tikkun Olam calls us into doing them. And it also calls us into a repair of ourselves. We are called every year to recognize the broken things in the community, and turn toward improvement. In Judaism, the holiest day of the year is Yom Kippur, and one of the central prayers that day is a prayer that the community stands up and says in unison a confession: “I have lied, I have murdered, I have raped, I have stolen” and so on. It’s all “I”, because anything that happens within the community, we all have to own and take moral responsibility for. So that annual prayer, where we stand up and we confess to one another our shortcomings, we also confess the shortcomings of the community and take them all on, a collective responsibility. Tikkun Olam is both an individual and collective moral responsibility.
G: Thank you so much.
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