New S.F. minyan embraces idea of empowered Judaism

Independent minyans such as the Kitchen and Mission Minyan in San Francisco  have a reputation for attracting young, progressive Jews in their 20s and 30s. But middle-age and older adults also are finding their way to these lay-led, Jewish prayer and study communities.

One of the newest is Kehillah San Francisco, a nondenominational, progressive minyan created less than two years ago.

KehillahSF participants meet monthly for a Kabbalat Shabbat service and oneg, observe the High Holy Days together and gather for semimonthly Saturday morning study sessions. They also have set up a social-action group, as well as a shiva group to support those in mourning.

Participants in the Kehillah San Francisco minyan during tashlich at Stern Grove in San Francisco photo/julie bannerman

The minyan was founded by a group made up of some members of San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El who were unhappy when 20-year veteran Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan’s contract was not renewed by the congregation in late 2010.

The minyan has seen interest in its model grow and its number of participants increase, including many who are older than is typical in an independent minyan, with children in high school, college and beyond. But expansion is not a primary goal of the budding venture.

“KehillahSF’s interest is quality, not quantity. It’s not necessarily hungry for growth,” explained Wolf-Prusan, one of the minyan’s participants.

Although he is a rabbi, Wolf-Prusan does not lead the minyan. “People who join KehillahSF are interested in strengthening their capacity for creating their own religious life,” he said.

“We are very much inspired by ‘Empowered Judaism,’ ” said Harriet Prensky, referring to a book by Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, one of the founders of Kehilat Hadar, an independent minyan in New York.

Prensky, an attorney, helped found KehillahSF and acts as its volunteer coordinator. In fact, everyone involved is a volunteer, as there is no staff. Officially, the group has a minimal board structure to satisfy legal requirements for nonprofit religious organizations, but in practice anyone can step up to suggest an activity or lead a subgroup.

“Ideas percolate up,” said Julie Bannerman, another attorney who has been with KehillahSF since the beginning.

Currently the community has more than 200 people on its mailing list, with at least half active on a regular basis, Prensky noted. Knowledge of KehillahSF’s existence has spread mainly by word of mouth, she added.

Instead of dues, there is a suggested annual contribution of $180 for individuals and $360 for families, to cover legal, insurance and space-rental costs. Services, study sessions and other activities take place either in rented space or in participants’ homes. They are currently trying to raise money to buy prayerbooks.

Bannerman and her husband, Ron, were members of Emanu-El before becoming involved with KehillahSF, but participants have come from other congregations or from none at all. Some have retained their original synagogue memberships.

“It’s something not fully established, something evolving with lots of energy, creativity and originality — and I want to be part of that,” Bannerman said.

Wolf-Prusan teaches and supports fellow participants who want to learn more about liturgy or Jewish law, or who wish to step up and lead prayers. He likens his role to that of a rabbi at a wedding, making sure that everything proceeds according to Jewish law while all eyes are on the couple, not on him.

Unlike in some lay-led communities, he says participants are not expected to be adept at leading prayers or any other aspect of Jewish practice.

“Our goal is to get people comfortable,” Prensky agreed. “We’re all there for one another, and we are not about imposing a single idea of what it means to be a community.”

Rabbi Marvin Goodman, executive director of the Northern California Board of Rabbis, said that minyans meet some people’s desire to take ownership of their religious life to a greater degree than might happen in a traditional congregation.

“It’s still early to know what kind of impact this one particular minyan will have on our community,” he said. “But it does highlight both the challenge and opportunity facing our synagogues in providing the proper support, programming and spiritual nourishment for this age group.”

Renee Ghert-Zand
Renee Ghert-Zand

Renee Ghert-Zand is a Jerusalem-based freelance journalist. She made aliyah from Palo Alto with her family in June 2014.