Reconstructionist congregation has built strong base in 5 years

Keddem Congregation of Palo Alto, celebrating its fifth birthday this month, may have lost one potential member because of her dog.

A few years back, when the then-budding congregation was holding a service in a classroom, the woman walked in with her dog and sat down.

"We asked her to take the dog outside," said Michael Weiss, the congregation's first — and so far, only — president. The woman complied, he said. "But she never came back."

Although Keddem may have lost a few other members then, the member-run Reconstructionist congregation spent its early years in a constant state of growth. Today, Keddem has 150 members.

"What's very clear is that this is working," Weiss said.

The congregation, Weiss said, has made a strong connection for many Jews who are drawn to its philosophy of adapting ancient traditions to meet modern needs. Its members adhere to a belief that "the past has a vote, not a veto."

Though Keddem grew by a robust 20 percent last year, Weiss and other members feel the congregation's health is measured in more than just numbers.

From its infancy in a classroom at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center, the congregation has spread out into two rented spaces — the Palo Alto Friends Meeting hall and the Cubberley Community Center.

Keddem runs twice monthly Shabbat services and now has two religious-school classes for youngsters aged 5 through 12. It has held High Holy Days services for the past two years, and young as well as older adult members have celebrated their b'nai mitzvah.

A popular "Bagels, Lox and Learning" series of monthly lectures regularly draws 30 to 50 people for talks on topics ranging from Mideast oil to Jews in Colonial America.

Keddem was founded by a group of people who met at Stanford Hillel, but were looking for something different than a student-oriented program.

The congregation's members see Judaism as rich in tradition but also as an evolving religious movement that must change with the times. The very name keddem embraces that view of both future and past: In Hebrew it means "that which is before us" — the future, and "that which is ever before us" — the past, or tradition.

"I kind of view it as preserving and upgrading Judaism to fit into American society today," said Alan Marcum, a founder and current board member.

The congregation considers itself inclusive, egalitarian and participatory. Keddem has no rabbi, nor any plans to get one.

"It started out as a very practical reason — we had no money," said Elaine Moise, a vice president and another founding member. In time, Keddem members came to see the benefits of operating without a formal leader. "What you end up with is a more educated congregational base," she said.

Members themselves direct all services, celebrations and many educational events. They also have their own prayer book, designed to reflect Reconstructionist viewpoints.

Moise, who is co-author of a feminist haggadah titled "Dancing with Miriam," said the congregation is rich in members who are knowledgeable about liturgy and ritual.

"Any given event has a particular person as the `owner,'" she said.

But Moise added that leading a Torah study session "is almost a trivial job" because the congregation has so many members "who are interested and want to learn."

"It's taken a lot of effort on the part of an awful lot of people," said Marcum, whose contributions include serving as the congregation's web manager. The Web site is www.keddem.org

Education for adults as well as children is a passion at Keddem, according to Moise.

"We think both are very important," she said. The congregation's monthly Torah study group "started out with three people in my backyard and ended up as a really big program."

Coping with that growth is one of the congregation's challenges. facing the congregation.

Bob Zimmerman, who has been with Keddem almost since its start, wants to continue building the congregation's sense of community.

"We're getting more people involved in the core group," he said. "That sense of connection is growing."

Weiss, who plans to step down as president at the end of June, has no qualms about leaving the congregation in someone else's hands.

"Organizations need to change leadership to stay fresh," Weiss said. "Different people have different visions and different priorities, and that's healthy."