Rabbi Yoel Kahn (left) speaking on a panel at the 2015 convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. (Photo/File)
Rabbi Yoel Kahn (left) speaking on a panel at the 2015 convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. (Photo/File)

Rabbi Yoel Kahn retires after 36 years of service to Bay Area Jews

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Thirty-six years after landing his first job out of rabbinical school, Rabbi Yoel Kahn has decided the time has come to retire.

He had held multiple Bay Area pulpit and Jewish agency jobs over the decades, but since 2007 had served as senior rabbi at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley. And it was from that Reform pulpit he announced recently he would be stepping down.

His send-off included the city of Berkeley proclaiming April 24 “Rabbi Yoel Kahn Day” and synagogue leaders announcing that the campus’ education wing would be renamed the Yoel Kahn Beit Limmud (house of study).

A farewell celebration was held on Zoom prior to his last day at Beth El on May 28.

It’s Kahn’s human touch that will be most missed, his colleagues told J recently.

“He’s an incredible people person,” said Jeremy Alberga, Beth El’s president. “He connected so well with the young and old, people with diverse spiritual and political beliefs. He has a great sense of humor, tremendous wisdom and understanding of Jewish practice and Torah, and he used that to bring people together.”

When he joined Beth El 14 years ago, replacing Rabbi Ferenc Raj, who had been there 12 years, Kahn helped the synagogue complete its transition into its newly built Oxford Street complex and get it on sound financial footing.

“I don’t think it’s a bridge too far to say his presence was critical for the survival of the congregation,” said new senior rabbi Rebekah Stern, Beth El’s associate rabbi for seven years. “When he arrived, the congregation had just moved into our new building. The process had been long and very demanding on the leadership and the resources of the congregation. It was not a secure time for him to come. By the time he finished his tenure, we were on solid ground, and now we’re a thriving and energized place.”

Founded in 1944, Beth El is one of the largest Reform synagogues in the East Bay, with 525 families, a nursery school and the popular summertime Camp Kee Tov, which first opened 54 years ago.

Being a rabbi is not about where you work but who you are

The process of relocating to the Oxford Street site was a long, costly and at times contentious one for Beth El.  After the site was purchased in 1997, some neighborhood groups fought against the construction of a synagogue, a battle that lasted until groundbreaking in 2001. The project cost some $11 million, and when Kahn started his tenure, fundraising and final construction were still a priority.

“I saw the congregation through hard times and it seemed to come out the other side,” said Kahn, who also faced waning membership when he first arrived.

Whatever challenges Kahn faced during his tenure at Beth El, they paled in comparison to the battlefield conditions of his first job.

A UC Berkeley graduate, Kahn received his ordination from Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in 1985. He was then named the first full-time rabbi at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, which had been founded in 1977 as San Francisco’s gay and lesbian synagogue, a logical posting as Kahn is gay. From the outset, he and his community confronted the HIV-AIDS crisis as it ravaged the Bay Area gay community.

With so many of his Sha’ar Zahav congregants dying of AIDS, during one High Holiday service at the height of the AIDS crisis, he found himself too overcome with emotion to lead the congregation in reciting the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, which reads in part, “On Yom Kippur it is sealed … who shall live and who shall die … who by earthquake and who by plague.”

“[The AIDS crisis] was emotionally and spiritually draining,” Kahn told J. in 2006. “But the value and holiness of gay relationships was so affirmed for me by the faithfulness in caregiving I saw.”

In 1996, after 11 years at Sha’ar Zahav, he took time out to earn a doctorate at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. From there, he accepted a rabbinical post at Hillel at Stanford, followed by a stint at Congregation Shir Shalom in Sonoma. While serving as a staff rabbi at the JCC of San Francisco, Kahn was tapped in 2007 to return to the pulpit, this time at Beth El.

“He had a very clear vision about what a synagogue can be at its best,” said Stern, who grew up at the Berkeley synagogue before returning as a rabbi in 2014. “He invested in the experience of its people. He really saw [Beth El] as a doorway, a step along the way for people to have a sense of connection to wider Jewish life.”

Kahn said he is proud always to have been a champion for LGBTQ rights, but equally proud that this alone did not define his career.

“Being a rabbi is not about where you work but who you are,” he told J. “I didn’t set out to be a spokesperson for gay and lesbian Jews or rabbis, but it turns out that’s where I was needed for the first part of my rabbinate. One of the things I’m grateful about Beth El is, I’m still an out gay man with a husband and family; that’s part of who I am but not the No. 1 thing.”

Kahn and his husband, Berkeley poet Dan Bellm, have been together for 40 years. They have a son, Adam, who lives in San Francisco. In retirement, Kahn plans to do some writing and had hoped to do some traveling, though the pandemic is putting a damper on that. He looks forward to taking on the role of Beth El rabbi emeritus in the months ahead, but for now, it’s one day at a time.

“I feel my rabbinate at every stage has been about embracing and honoring people where they are,” he said, “and helping them find their own Jewish path.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.