Photo exhibit of Bay Area Jews belies stereotypes

Question: What does a typical Bay Area Jew look like? Answer: Not what you’d expect.

“This is Bay Area Jewry,” a photography exhibit at Oakland’s Temple Sinai, put together by Lehrhaus Judaica and Building Jewish Bridges, highlights the stories of 16 community members whose backgrounds belie Ashkenazi-focused stereotypes.

The exhibit at the synagogue’s Gallery Sinai was conceived while Debbie Rosenfeld-Caparaz of Lehrhaus Judaica and Dawn Kepler, director of Building Jewish Bridges, a Lehrhaus program for Bay Area interfaith families, were working on an upcoming conference for adult children of interfaith marriages. The two thought it would be interesting to have a photo exhibit exploring the variety of Jews, and ways to be Jewish, in the 21st century.

Zeke, Dave, Violette and Miranda Sofaer (from left) photos/lydia daniller

“We are interested in pushing folks to think more deeply about what Jewish heritage means,” Kepler said, “and to realize that there are lots of Jews, and not very many of them fit into that Ashkenazi stereotype.”

Initially, the two women imagined the exhibit to be a large poster filled with smiling faces. Then, as they continued to work on it, they realized they had stumbled upon something more — so they reached out to photographer Lydia Daniller and writer Robert Nagler Miller to assemble a multimedia exhibit showcasing a fuller picture of Jewish life in the Bay Area.

“We wanted to include people’s stories, not just their faces,” Kepler said. “I was looking to show diversity in many ways: The exhibit includes members of the LGBTQ community, families in which one partner is Jewish and one is non-Jewish, very young children, working professionals and grandparents in their 70s and 80s.”

One such person is Emmett Koehler, whose tagline in the exhibit reads, “Had he not been born gay, Emmett Koehler doubts he would be a Jew today.”

Koehler, 37, grew up in a Catholic household in Indiana and converted to Judaism last year.

“I didn’t have the option to just be a Catholic unquestioningly, like most of my family members, because I’m gay,” Koehler said. “That crisis of faith gave me the permission to look outside of the faith I grew up in, and look for a different faith tradition that was more in line with my belief system.”

Koehler was drawn to Judaism early on. He researched Jewish Holocaust survivors for a statewide high school history competition, traveled to Europe’s synagogues with a Jewish woman while studying abroad in Sweden and spent his last semester of college working as a receptionist at a Jewish community center.

But it wasn’t until he moved to the Bay Area four years ago that he started taking conversion seriously.

Emmett Koehler

“I was looking for a community of others who were spiritual and religious, and I really found that at Temple Sinai,” Koehler said. “I often liken it to falling in love.”

After a year of classes at Sinai, Koehler had his conversion ceremony in January 2015. His mother flew out for the occasion.

“It was a few days after my birthday, and it was really special for my mother to be there to celebrate the day of my original birth and my rebirth,” he said.

Dave and Violette Sofaer, who also are included in the exhibit, have a rich ancestral history. Dave’s father was an Iraqi Jew who grew up in India and his mother, who converted to Judaism, was Filipino, African American and Cherokee. Violette is a Mexican-American Catholic.

Growing up secular in Richmond as the only Jewish kid in his neighborhood, Dave knew little about his Jewishness. It wasn’t until his mid-20s, during a summer in Israel working on a kibbutz, that he began to re-explore his Jewish faith. Now the Sofaers are dedicated to maintaining a Jewish home and raising their two children to be Jewish.

Zeke and Miranda attended JCC preschool and the family belongs to Temple Isaiah in Lafayette. Their Jewish home is a tapestry of traditions: menorah lights on Hanukkah and tamales and pozole for Christmas Eve.

Kim Carter Martinez is another Bay Area Jew whose authenticity is often challenged due to the color of her skin. The daughter of a white Jewish mother and an African-American father who converted to Judaism, Martinez said she always has had to prove she belongs in the Jewish community. When she was a kid, her family attended a Conservative synagogue, and she spent two years living and studying in Israel. She’s now a member of Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham.

“I don’t question others’ Judaism, and I don’t want them questioning mine. I always ask them in return, ‘How are you Jewish?’” she said.

Kepler pointed out that “many refer to the Bay Area as a diaspora of the diaspora.

“Which means that the people who do choose to engage in the Jewish community here have made a distinctive choice to do so, and that has a far-reaching impact on the kinds of communities that form,” she said.

“This is Bay Area Jewry,” through June at Temple Sinai, 2808 Summit St., Oakland.

Hannah Rubin

Hannah Rubin is a writer at J. She can be reached at [email protected].