Synagogue’s high flyer: Co-chair of Kehilla is a performer in the circus

Some time ago, SAM Luckey had one of those moments that only she could have. As she waited to rehearse her trapeze act at Circus Center San Francisco, she sat in the stairwell, on her cellphone, participating in her synagogue’s board meeting.

Most of her circus colleagues don’t know that Luckey, 28, is co-chair of her synagogue, Piedmont’s Kehilla Community Synagogue (which has co-chairs on its board of trustees rather than a president and vice president).

But most Kehilla members do know that one of their shul’s co-chairs is a circus performer — one who can do a one-armed handstand while keeping her body parallel to the floor, or dangle off the side of a building from a large metal hoop.

SAM Luckey with Elijah Cherweznik photos/gina browne

Luckey spent six months touring with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey as a trapeze artist, and then was asked to join Cirque du Soleil as an apprentice — which she turned down because “I’m much more fulfilled by being involved in a diversity of things,” she said.

Born and raised in Oakland, Luckey fell in love with the circus when she was 7. Her parents chose Camp Winnarainbow, a circus and performing arts camp founded by Wavy Gravy in Mendocino County, as a good place for her and her siblings to attend.

Luckey changed her first name to SAM when she was 16. She chose it because it was androgynous, and she didn’t want people making assumptions about her because of her name. And given that Sam was fairly common, she chose to spell it with capital letters to make it unique.

At circus camp, Luckey learned how to juggle, ride a unicycle and be a clown. She went from camper to teen staff to teaching staff within a few years.

When Luckey told her mom (a college biochemistry professor) and her dad (an educator and author) she planned to go to circus school rather than college, they were not too pleased. But she had done her research, and had found a circus school in London at which she could also obtain a bachelor’s degree.

Luckey makes fire circles with a colleague on stage

So off she went, learning about clowning and jumping and swinging from one bar to another. While it was an exciting time professionally, it was a difficult time spiritually. “No one else in my class or around me was Jewish,” she said. “I started to say the Shema in the morning, to hold a connection to that community and element of my life.”

Eventually she started touring with Ringling Bros.

“I had so much fun with Ringling Bros.,” she said. “It definitely had a very corporate structure, but it was so international, with so many languages, cultures and people. In a three-hour show, I was on stage five times in entirely different costumes each time.”

But she also felt completely disconnected from her Judaism. In a company of 250 people (both performers and staff), there were at most two other Jews, she said.

The Brazilians in the tour prayed with a priest before shows, and Luckey sometimes joined them.

“They knew I was Jewish, but they welcomed me as another spiritually inclined person,” she said.

SAM Luckey with Elijah Cherweznik photos/gina browne

A separated shoulder in 2008 forced her to quit the tour and return home, and by that point, Kehilla — the synagogue of her youth — had moved from North Berkeley to right near the Oakland house of her parents, Paul Kivel and Mary Luckey, where she stayed while recuperating from surgery. Around that time, she started attending services at Kehilla, but not just because it was close by and familiar.

As a lesbian, she also felt extremely comfortable at the synagogue. In fact, she called Kehilla “a leader” in the way it welcomes LGBT people. “It has this openness to people experiencing spirituality in their own way,” she added. She also liked Kehilla’s strong emphasis on social justice.

After Luckey joined, the board decided to bring on a board member from the young adult community, and she was an obvious choice. She soon was leading the membership committee and sitting on the “Welcoming Synagogues” task force. The next year, she became a co-chair, and is now entering her second year in that position; Joel Kreisberg is the other co-chair.

Now, Luckey might even go a step further — several steps, actually — and enter the Aleph ordination program for Jewish Renewal rabbis. She said it’s something she is considering.

SAM Luckey balances her Jewish life and circus career

As a performer, Luckey is involved with four independent circus/theater projects: she does trapeze and acrobatics in both the Oakland-based Vespertine Circus and Berkeley-based Clown Snot Bombs Secret Circus; she is part of an interactive theater company, Oakland-based Jessica Ferris Productions; and with S.F.-based Flyaway Productions, she hangs off of buildings in shows that combine aerial dance with social issues.

Her most steady income comes from teaching circus to adults at the Athletic PlayGround in Emeryville, and she also does some freelance work as a solo performer, or with her acrobatics partner, Shira Yaziv. Recently, she and Yaziv performed handstands and other tricks at an anti–death penalty fundraiser at Kehilla.

Luckey said her greatest challenges are rehearsals that fall on Jewish holidays and shows on Friday nights. Flyaway Productions, for example, plans its schedule far in advance she can’t miss important technical rehearsals. And in Clown Snot Bombs, the only weekend available to do a show in a particular theater last spring was on Passover, “and I didn’t want to be the one person that prevented the group from having that experience,” she said.

“That was really hard for me,” she added. “I’m trying to become more observant of the Sabbath, but none of the people I perform with are Jewish so I feel really alone in my recognition that it’s a holy time. That’s going to continue to be a big challenge.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."