Trans-Atlantic connection lands rabbi for Kol Hadash

The Society for Humanistic Judaism has lost half its membership in Germany with this month's move of Hamburg resident Kai Eckstein.

In exchange for Germany's loss — which leaves one sole society member in that country — an East Bay congregation is getting its very first rabbi.

Congregants of Albany-based Kol Hadash, a 150-member synagogue that celebrates Judaism with a secular spin, hope Eckstein will energize and swell the ranks of their local organization. Worldwide, there are about 50,000 Humanistic Jews.

A 32-year-old Jewish scholar and lecturer, Eckstein joined Kol Hadash following a two-year search that clearly took a long geographical reach.

Noting that there "aren't very many Humanistic rabbis," Kol Hadash President Marcia Grossman raved about the one they found. Many congregants met Eckstein when he paid a visit last fall.

Calling Eckstein "a mensch," she said, "he's right in line with our beliefs, our philosophy, our way of doing things."

Boyish-looking, multilingual and possessor of a deep and ready laugh, Eckstein said he has no preset agenda for Kol Hadash, which happens to be his first congregation.

"First I have to settle a little and see what the congregation is about," he said. Hired to work halftime, Eckstein said he wants to learn: "What does this congregation need from me? How can I serve this congregation?"

Asked about his philosophy, Eckstein said, "I would not say I'm a nonbeliever. I believe in strong values."

But rather than turning to a deity for answers, Eckstein said people themselves "have the possibility or ability to change the world. We have the power to shape our own lives."

Reared in a secular and "very liberal" home outside of Frankfurt, Eckstein comes to Kol Hadash with a Jewish background built on an intellectual quest for knowledge.

Eckstein said his grandfather, who survived the Holocaust by hiding in a small German town, taught him the alef-bet as a child. He said he later got a thrill communicating with him in "kind of a secret language."

Eckstein will discuss his family's story in a "Rescuers and the Rescued" program at Kol Hadash at 4:30 p.m. Sunday in observance of Yom HaShoah.

He graduated in 1997 from Frankfurt University in Jewish studies and German sign language. He also plunged into Jewish theater, joining a Yiddish acting troupe that once performed a previously unknown — and mildly risque — Purim play dating back to 1706.

He traveled to Israel to continue his studies and eventually enrolled in a non-Orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem, where he was ordained in 1999.

"I was looking for another possibility to live as a Jew, but a nonreligious Jew," Eckstein explained. He found the answer a few years ago, when a friend gave him the Web address for the Michigan-based Humanisitic organization.

Eckstein described punching in and promptly experiencing one of life's "ah-hah!" moments when up popped the home page for the Society for Humanistic Judaism.

"I was, wow! I was amazed by that Web site," he said. "I found what I was looking for."

Though well aware of the existence of many other nonreligious Jews like himself, "I didn't know there was an organization serving them."

Unaware of any other Humanistic Jews in Germany, Eckstein said he studied the movement's philosophy on his own.

Moving to Hamburg 2-1/2 years ago, Eckstein began hosting a weekly radio program called "Shabbat Shalom" and giving seminars on the basics of Judaism at Hamburg University. He also led a chavurah with about 15 unaffiliated members.

Last year, he was contacted by Rabbi Miriam Jerris, a national leader in the Humanistic society, about the job opening in Albany. Jumping at the chance, he visited last September, meeting about 100 congregants and performing Rosh Hashanah services.

A jazz trumpet player, he also wrote a song for the congregation called "Kol Hadash" ("New Voice").

Noting that many of the members are older than he is, Eckstein said he plans to listen to their needs while reaching out to new members, particularly younger families. Eckstein, who is gay, moved to the Bay Area with his partner.

He plans to offer an adult-study program at Kol Hadash and will teach youngsters in the congregation's Sunday school.

He also plans to reach out to unaffiliated Jews. "Here in the Bay Area, there are so many Jews not belonging to a congregation or not satisfied with a way of living a Jewish life," he said. "I want to show them there's another possibility to live a Jewish life not in a religious way."

While Humanistic Jews don't pray to God, they do celebrate holidays and study Jewish texts, history and culture.

Said Grossman: "For him to have found us and us to have found him seems quite fortuitous. It's been a very, very good connection."