Zvika Krieger, the new spiritual leader of Chochmat HaLev, has led services in many milieus — including leading Shabbat services at Burning Man in 2018. (Background photo/Sasha Juliard)
Zvika Krieger, the new spiritual leader of Chochmat HaLev, has led services in many milieus — including leading Shabbat services at Burning Man in 2018. (Background photo/Sasha Juliard)

Chochmat HaLev, Berkeley’s ‘graying’ Renewal synagogue, names Zvika Krieger new spiritual leader

For its next spiritual leader, Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley has found someone well-versed in Jewish text, liturgy, Biblical Hebrew, ritual and tradition.

And he can dance.

Four months after the departure of Jhos Singer and Julie Batz, who co-led the Renewal congregation for seven years, Zvika Krieger has been named the community’s new spiritual leader. His formal installation is April 30.

In addition to his Orthodox roots and a lifelong immersion in traditional Judaism, Krieger also is an active member of the Bay Area’s ecstatic dance community, something that fits well with Chochmat’s rousing style at Friday night services.

“Embodied prayer and worship is my jam,” he said. “A lot of the magic of Chochmat is in the in-person experience because so much of what we do is embodied prayer — singing, dancing, getting out of your chair and feeling the electricity in the room.”

Krieger is not a rabbi, although he studied for a year at Yeshivat Sha’arei Mevaseret Zion near Jerusalem, and is currently a rabbinical student at Aleph: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Neither Singer nor Batz  were ordained rabbis; that credential is not a requirement to lead Chochmat (though Krieger, who will be part time, does plan to obtain his ordination).

Krieger has a resume rich in Jewish congregational and community leadership. A Yale graduate, he has led services, officiated weddings and baby namings, and served on boards for the Burning Man camp Milk+Honey, the Jewish Studio Project, DC Minyan and other institutions.

For the last 2½ years, Krieger, 38, was the director of responsible innovation at Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. As such, he was charged with working with the product teams to anticipate and mitigate potential harms posed by new technologies, such as virtual reality and the metaverse.

Since moving to the Berkeley six years ago, the Los Angeles native has attended Chochmat services often, though he described himself as a ”shul-hopper” who also has enjoyed services at Congregations Beth Israel, Netivot Shalom and Beth El and at the Jewish educational farm Urban Adamah (all in Berkeley).

“That’s one of the things I love about the Berkeley Jewish community,” he said. “The walls are very porous, with people going in every direction. You don’t have to fit into any one box, and Chochmat is a fusion.”

That fusion has always blended music, dance, meditation, study and community to forge a trans-denominational model of Judaism, as embodied in the Renewal movement. Like all houses of worship, Chochmat HaLev faced challenges during the pandemic, though Krieger said he was uplifted by the community’s strong Zoom presence when in-person gatherings were on hiatus.

Embodied prayer and worship is my jam.

Now, three decades after Chochmat began as a series of classes in 1992 and 1993, he feels things are looking up.

“The community is very strong,” he said. “[Chochmat] has a very knowledgeable and talented membership base, people who are deep scholars in Jewish texts, ritual, mysticism. It’s always had robust, community-driven programming. It’s really a shul that does a lot with little resources. Everybody wants to contribute.”

Chochmat board president Jeffrey Kessler said the congregation sought someone “who could lead meaningful and inspiring Shabbat and holiday services, and someone who would help engage in community building.”

The latter was especially important for the 200 family-member synagogue, which officially started as a nonprofit in 1995.

“Chochmat is currently a graying community,” Kessler said. “There aren’t a lot of young people and families. One of the things Zvika will bring is renewed zest and demographic balance. He has really great communication skills, and he’s a good thought partner.”

Though this is Krieger’s first job as a synagogue spiritual leader, the bimah is a comfortable and familiar place for him.

A native of Los Angeles, he was raised Orthodox and steeped in Torah and Talmud study. As much as he respects the religious traditions of his youth, as a young man he found he wanted something different. And becoming a rabbi was low on this list.

He worked short stints for the World Economic Forum and the U.S. Department of State, and taught ethical design and social impact at Stanford, UC Berkeley and the Rhode Island School of Design in addition to working at Facebook. He also was senior vice president of the Center for Middle East Peace in Washington, D.C., and was a Middle East correspondent for Newsweek, based in Egypt and Lebanon.

But the gravitational pull of Judaism never relented.

“I feel very blessed to have grown up Orthodox,” he said. “It gave me a deep tool kit in terms of Jewish practice. There is so much beautiful wisdom to be had in our tradition. Unfortunately, that has been gate-kept by people who have a particular social or political agenda, and because people can’t read the sources in the original, they rely on intermediaries who put their own biased spin on things.”

That’s why Krieger said he feels “lucky to be that bridge for people, exposing [them] to the gems from our tradition that they may not be able to access on their own.”

As for his initial plans at Chochmat, Krieger said he expects to do a lot of listening.

“I entered this role with a lot of humility,” he said. “Chochmat in many ways has been at the vanguard of the Jewish Renewal movement and the Jewish community in general. So I like to say if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. This is not a story of a spiritual leader coming in to fix a moribund institution, and I’m not looking to make major changes, especially out of the gate.”

But he is eager to get started. “I created my own brand of ancient meets modern, sacred meets profane, serious meets irreverent. All the parts of me.”

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.