Rabbi Yoel Kahn comes home to Berkeley’s Beth El

“This is how we’ve always done it” is not an argument that will win you points with Rabbi Yoel Kahn.

While the rabbi-to-be at Berkeley’s Reform Congregation Beth El respects tradition, he’s an innovator at heart. And, with a religion as old as Judaism, “always” is something of a relative term.

“It’s a myth that any particular community is ‘doing it the way it’s always been done.’ The Kaddish, which is about as Jewish as you can get, is only from about the 10th century. L’cha Dodi, the hallmark of Shabbat, is only from the 16th, and as late as the 19th century, some communities resisted it,” said Kahn, an alum of both U.C. Berkeley and Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union, from which he received a Ph.D.

“We don’t do Judaism as they do in the Bible, we don’t do Judaism as they did it in the Talmud and we don’t do it as they did in the Middle Ages. But each of those informed the Judaism we do today.”

Making prayer relevant for 21st-century Bay Area residents isn’t just Kahn’s hobby or livelihood — it’s his raison d’être.

The 48-year-old rabbi, who will take the reins at Beth El from Rabbi Ferenc Raj in July, is one of the contributors to the Reform movement’s new prayerbook, “Mishkan T’filah: A New Reform Siddur,” which will come out later this year and replace a 31-year-old volume.

But as much faith as Kahn puts into Jewish texts, he knows there’s more to prayer than ink on the page. The difference between reading a prayerbook and going to services, he says, is like checking out the complete works of Shakespeare from the public library or taking your seat at the Globe Theater.

“It’s amazing how you sit there in the theater for an hour or two and you walk out a different person. Well, the synagogue should have the same depth and richness,” said Kahn, currently the JCC of San Francisco’s associate director for arts, ideas and Jewish life.

When Kahn was born in Oakland, his parents were Beth El congregants — “I consider that my major claim to fame.” In many ways, his first full-time pulpit since he left San Francisco’s Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in 1996 is a homecoming.

One could say it was meant to be, but, even a decade ago, it wouldn’t have been.

“I was told for a long time I’d never be a rabbi because I was gay. And at some point in time I realized that was the wrong equation, because the gay part wasn’t going to change,” said Kahn, who lives in San Francisco with his husband of 25 years, Dan Bellm, and their son, Adam, 15.

Kahn was told he’d never be a rabbi. Then he was told he’d never be ordained. Then he was told he’d never get a job. Then he was told if he took the job leading San Francisco’s gay and lesbian congregation, it’d be the last job he ever had. Today, he is slated to lead a large and thriving congregation.

“It was never a question of ‘could I be a rabbi?’ but ‘could I earn a living as a rabbi?’ Once I had that clear, I was OK. Because I really wanted to be a rabbi. So I stopped worrying about it. And here I am.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.