The Kitchen: A new take on Jewish practice

It’s 6 p.m. on a damp, chilly Friday in San Francisco, but inside a Mission District school, there’s a warm light emanating from the second-floor meeting room. Upstairs, as a toddler runs cheerfully around the wooden benches, a young woman is checking names off a list for the after-service dinner, catered by a nearby eatery.

Rabbi Noa Kushner, a tiny woman of 41 with closely cropped brown curls and glasses, is flitting around the room, greeting people as they make their way inside the San Francisco Friends School — housed in the refurbished Levi Strauss building.

Attendees are diverse: groups of friends in their 20s, couples in their 30s carrying infants, older people with their adult children, and those who stroll in alone.

On the stairway, a paper sign announces “The  Kitchen is here!” On the website, the slogan “slow down, jew up” is displayed prominently. One thing is clear: This will not be your traditional Kabbalat Shabbat.

Rabbi Noa Kushner

“The whole idea was to create something that filled a gap, that met needs that weren’t being met,” says the rabbi, surveying the room as it fills from a dozen people to roughly 50.

“And we’re still figuring out how to do that. But one of the main ways is for everyone to feel welcome, regardless of their background. That includes people who might not have been part of a synagogue before, who haven’t connected to Judaism in a formal way in a long time — or ever.”

As its website lays it out, The Kitchen is “one part indie Shabbat community, one part San Francisco experiment, and one part tool kit for DIY Jewish practice.” It’s “not exactly” a synagogue, according to its mission statement, and it’s certainly not a kitchen (but was named such because a kitchen is an “informal, accessible and decentralized” place).

In simpler terms, it is Kushner’s dream in action.

The center of the emerging community evidently lies with those in their 20s and 30s — many of them, like Kushner, parents with kids in tow (she has three). For children too young to sit comfortably through services, there’s Camp Kitchen day care in an adjoining room. Afterward, there will be an optional (although not free) dinner, with food from places such as Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen or the Local Mission Eatery.

Kushner takes her place at the front of the room, next to guitarist Jonathan Bayer, her small stature belying her reputation as a powerful force within the Bay Area’s progressive Jewish community. The daughter of one rabbi (noted writer Lawrence Kushner) and the wife of another (Michael Lezak of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael), Noa Kushner has been in and around synagogues for most of her life.

In her early 30s, she led Hillel at Stanford; a few years later, she moved to Rodef Sholom, where she created NITA, a smorgasbord of Gen X-targeted programming that included events such as a “pop-up Shabbat” and “Torah on the Trails.”

In June, she left Rodef Sholom to found The Kitchen, with funding help from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, the nonprofit UpStart Bay Area and the national Jewish leadership network Synagogue 3000.

The Kitchen, which  held its first services in June, carries on the themes she developed at Rodef Sholom — namely, a do-it-yourself element that appeals to younger adults, and to those who might not have any religious affiliation but are looking for a way to connect.

In addition to having Shabbat and High Holy Day services, The Kitchen provides toolkits for people who want to hold Shabbat, Havdallah or other gatherings in their homes. Engagement — by any means necessary — is the name of the game.

“There’s so much here culturally for Jews, especially around food, with organizations like Hazon,” Kushner says. “But there really wasn’t anything like this spiritually.”

San Francisco’s lay-led Mission Minyan is one local community that seeks to attract young, possibly unaffiliated Jews, and Kushner has nothing but praise for it.

But The Kitchen is different, she notes. It is following the lead of other progressive Jewish communities, including the social justice-focused Ikar in Los Angeles and the Kavana cooperative in Seattle, entities that Kushner calls “independent Jewish communities, each with founding rabbis, who have helped to shape vison.”

In addition to running services, The Kitchen will cultivate a staff of teachers who will guide opportunities for independent and group study, “DIY Jewish learning” and a family school, Kushner says.

Her vision goes well beyond this meeting hall. “In my dream, there continue to be more and more places to practice Jewish life in San Francisco until it feels here like an L.A. or a New York,” she says. “I think more is more.”

The L.A. connection resonates with Rachel Torres, 28, a Shabbat attendee.

“I just moved up here this summer,” says Torres, who works at a local tech startup. “I was involved with Ikar before, and I didn’t really know anything about the Bay Area’s Jewish community, so I tried out [The Kitchen] … I love the idea of being part of something brand new. It makes me excited to be part of it.”

Suzannah Neufeld, who attended Stanford as an undergraduate and there became a fan of Kushner, says the welcoming atmosphere in the room was an extension of the people at work behind The Kitchen.

“Noa has something special. She changed my life the first time I met her,” Neufeld says, bouncing her toddler — one of many in the room — on her knee. “And the people she’s working with are really some of the most creative, passionate people you could get on board for something like this.”

Seated across from her, for example, is Janine Okmin, associate director of education at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and a member of the Kitchen Cabinet, as the board is called.

Another board member is Daniel  Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund, former executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and the founding director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance. Sokatch has been involved with the creation of a lot of nonprofits, but he’s especially excited to see where The Kitchen goes.

“I’m a longtime friend of Noa’s, so I was already in the position of wanting to support her. But I was particularly excited when I heard about her plans for this community because, with its community vision and social justice values, it felt like the right one for my family,” says Sokatch, a San Francisco resident who was involved with the L.A.-based Ikar at its beginning.

“There’s something uniquely San Francisco about this endeavor: It’s this fresh, entrepreneurial, naturally creative thing,” he adds. “For families like mine, it’s a place for education, where we’ll bat mitzvah our kids. For new people, it can be a gateway into meaningful Jewish experience. Even if they don’t stick around, it can be a place that they leave saying ‘Wow, that was awesome to find here.’ ”

After a roughly 90-minute service, about half the attendees are hugging and saying goodbye, as sliding doors open to a room where tables are lined up for Shabbat dinner.

Elissa Oppenheimer, a 32-year-old who just moved to San Francisco from Boston, opted out of dinner, but was impressed with the Shabbat service — her first at The Kitchen.

“I was just checking it out — I’m looking for something that’s more about spirituality and community than religion,” she says.

First impressions? As she bundles up to make her way outside, she eyes a toddler running around announcing, very seriously, that the dinner bell has rung. “It feels like someone’s home,” she says. “I have a feeling I’ll be back.”

For more information about The Kitchen, visit or email [email protected] Memberships from $18.99 to $139.99 a month.

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.