Piedmont’s Kehilla temple to present Berkeley climate justice forum
By Lou Fancher
One of life’s great ironies arrives when individuals or organizations intent on acting as followers instead become leaders in the fight for social justice.
Irony and leadership therefore will manifest themselves visibly when Piedmont’s Kehilla Community Synagogue presents an upcoming public forum, “Visioning Climate Justice.” The event March 28 at First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley will feature Lisjan/Ohlone spokesperson Corrina Gould and a panel of youths in a discussion addressing critical climate issues and their impact on indigenous communities and future generations.
Stephanie Hochman — a 20-year Kehilla member and, with Lisa Korwin, an event co-chair — says in an interview that “Kehilla is a passionate activist congregation. I’m on the board and part of my mission is to make sure we’re out in the community and have an enriched congregation that’s about making bridges.” Climate justice activist Gould is “a local legend having tremendous impact,” Hochman says.
Gould co-founded Indian People Organizing for Change and Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, organizations working to protect, preserve and restore the environment and land in indigenous communities and locations. She interacts with youth through her work with a number of resource environmental centers in the Bay Area and California. The panel joining Gould are composed of youth who are members of Kehilla or affiliated with the synagogue’s many social justice community partners.
“Other than that they are all youths,” says Hochman, “we were looking for people of color, some Jewish youth, and people able to speak and present to large audiences. We hope to fill the hall, which seats about 700.”
The two-hour program will open with a greeting from Senior Rabbi Dev Noily, followed with a keynote address by Gould. A short dance trio performance by Dance Brigade of “Butterfly Effect,” about rippling, exponential change caused by a single person’s actions will precede the panel discussion. The evening will concludes with a havdalah ceremony that traditionally ends the Shabbat and starts a new week.
Michael Saxe-Taller, Kehilla’s executive director, says the Jewish Renewal congregation of about 500 households has a clear connection in its DNA to Jewish traditions but “with a strong emphasis on renewing those traditions so they are meaningful and accessible in the present.” For example, services at the Piedmont synagogue use gender-neutral language to refer to the divine and prayer practices include meditation and chanting drawn from of Buddhism and paganism.
“Chanting is also a practice from Judaism of the past that is not often performed in modern times,” says Saxe-Taller. In his five years at Kehilla, the congregation has expanded from 380 households to its current size; the school from 75 students to 105 and 22 youth are in the bar/bat mitzvah program.
“Every year, hundreds of people who are not members of the community come to our social justice activities,” Saxe-Taller says about accessibility and the community’s extensive social justice initiatives and committees. “People recognize more and more they want to participate in social justice in a place where people have made commitments to each other and to a set of values that guide their actions.”
Jewish people seeking a progressive faith community accepting people of all colors, genders, sexual orientations and with a wide range of religious and spiritual beliefs find warm welcome, he emphasizes.
Rabbi Burt Jacobson in 1984 founded the Kehilla school (located at that time in Berkeley) that is today Kehilla Community Synagogue. Rabbi Chaya Gusfield joined in 1997, becoming a pivotal lay leader involved in numerous activities and outreach. In its more than three decades, Kehilla has been involved with social justice education and activism related to gun control, race, economic equality, immigration rights, affordable housing, violence prevention, xenophobia, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, peace issues and environmental issues.
“As our society and the increasing oppressive policies of our government have made clear, this is a time we want to be in solidarity with other people,” says Saxe-Taller. “Atomized families can’t make things happen. We offer a place where you can come with a variety of Jewish beliefs and practices and be welcome. Acts of justice are the central ways we practice Jewish faith and life.”
By partnering with other synagogues and often with other faith communities in addition to social justice organizations, Saxe-Taller insists solidarity is held up as a model to heal society and empower even greater strides. Asked about Kehilla’s Faith Trio alliance, which includes Muslims, Christians and Jews, he says, “It’s very important to be engaged with people who have different faiths and beliefs. We’re not presumptuous enough to think we know all there is to know.”
Participation with the community organization Faith in Action East Bay and other groups has led to jointly-held art exhibits, shared fall harvest events and speakers who integrate messages about current topics with Jewish concepts including teshuvah (repentance) and tikkun olam (healing or repairing the world). A recent message involving reparations to African Americans drew a crowd of 800.
“We wanted to think about what it would mean for us as Jews to help repair our role in injustices that have happened and continue to happen in society,” Saxe-Taller recalls. “We aren’t specifically responsible for them, but to play a part in repairing them is part of our liberation. We want to do our part to repair the wounds caused to people of African heritage.”
Likewise, the community is intent on learning from indigenous community leaders and youth activists — two groups most severely impacted by the climate crisis. Sincere in their belief that education and following wisdom precedes authority, Kehilla models leadership in faithful pursuit of social justice.