Chel Mandell (left) leads a TzimTzum Shabbat in Santa Cruz. (Photo/Courtesy)
Chel Mandell (left) leads a TzimTzum Shabbat in Santa Cruz. (Photo/Courtesy)

Queer group in Santa Cruz celebrates Judaism ‘in their own light’

Fifth-year rabbinical student Chel Mandell moved from San Francisco to Santa Cruz two years ago to escape city life and live near the ocean.

Eager to find a Jewish community that resonated with their values and identity as a gender-nonconforming person, they immediately noticed a lack of queer-centered Jewish life in the beach town 70 miles south of San Francisco.

Mandell appreciated that established congregations in Santa Cruz County such as Temple Beth El — where Mandell previously worked — welcome LGBTQ Jews. But they also wanted to create a Jewish space completely built by and centered around queer Jews.

“I thought, what kind of Jewish community do I want?” said Mandell, who is 31.

Chel Mandell (Photo/Courtesy)
Chel Mandell (Photo/Courtesy)

Hanging out at a wine bar in Santa Cruz a week after San Francisco’s Pride Parade in June 2022, Mandell overheard Kelly Brown, who runs the Do Right Flower Farm, talking about queer communities in the area. Mandell introduced themselves and their hopes to create a Jewish queer community.

“I know so many queer Jews,” Brown told Mandell, prompting a brainstorming session about how to create such a group and leading to the TzimTzum Collective, a Jewish group centered around queer identities.

After their initial conversation, Brown, 39, introduced Mandell to other queer Jewish friends in Santa Cruz. Mandell, a self-described natural extrovert, soon began having one-on-one conversations to find out what other people were seeking.

TzimTzum’s first Shabbat potluck last August drew 22 people to the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Since then, the nascent group has hosted a dozen Shabbat dinners and multiple Jewish rituals, text study sessions and singing programs.

TzimTzum has thus far operated solely through member donations. As the group scales up going into the High Holidays, Mandell has been fundraising and applying for grants.

A Bay Area native, Mandell grew up in Burlingame and spent their undergraduate years at University of San Francisco. Before moving to Santa Cruz, they were a rabbinic intern at The Kitchen, an independent congregation in San Francisco. Mandell has also been hired to help develop a new graduate-level certificate program that’s part of USF’s Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice.

One of Mandell’s main goals in Santa Cruz is to make Jewish rituals accessible for queer people who don’t feel like they fit the traditional rituals they see as based on gender-binary and heterosexual norms.

While Mandell has always felt connected to Jewish community, they realized they lacked a deep understanding of Jewish texts and traditions after growing up in the Reform movement. As a rabbi-to-be who is starting the final year of remote learning through the L.A.- based nondenominational Academy for Jewish Religion California, they center TzimTzum around Torah, Jewish law and Jewish traditions in an environment that actively embraces queer people, culture and experiences.

Mandell said most of the ideas behind TzimTzum came from conversations walking along the city’s West Cliff Drive, a scenic pathway along the ocean.

When I step into a queer, specifically trans place, I feel so much joy in my heart.

Levi Taussig, a 26-year-old nonbinary Jew, was soaking in the sun with a friend, discussing the lack of queer Jewish community in Santa Cruz, when Mandell and their mutual friend, Naomi Rose, walked by. Taussig overheard Mandell and Rose’s conversation. Realizing that they were having the same discussion, they merged conversations and Taussig quickly became involved in Mandell’s project.

Levi Taussig
Levi Taussig

Taussig never felt fully comfortable in their different identities until they joined a queer Jewish group in college. Now, as a young adult, they feel TzimTzum is chosen family.

“When I step into a queer, specifically trans place, I feel so much joy in my heart. It feels like exaltation, and that’s what I feel in [Jewish] song and in Shabbat,” Taussig said.

The name “TzimTzum” comes from mystical Judaism. The Kabbalistic belief of “tzimtzum” says that to create the universe, God first had to contract or withdraw from spaces to make room for creation.

“As queer people who are trying to reignite Judaism in their own light, we have to contract and expand,” Mandell said. Oftentimes, they said, queer Jews must contract or pull back from the ways of traditional Jewish institutions that default to heteronormative modes and then expand Jewish practices in a new way that recognizes LGBTQ Jews.

“Torah doesn’t serve a purpose if we don’t allow it to evolve with us. It’s breathing new life every year,” Mandell said.

As a way to center Shabbat within queer experiences, for example, TzimTzum hosted an event on what it means to rest in a queer body.

“Everything you look at as queers comes with a different set of questions, different viewpoints of the world,” Mandell said.

Nicole Wargon, a 30-year-old Santa Cruz native who joined TzimTzum early on, immediately felt at home. Growing up in a Reform family that celebrated Shabbat every week, she was looking for a community to reflect that culture and tradition as well as her queer identity.

TzimTzum has motivated her and her partner, Megan Churana, to take up Jewish rituals, particularly Shabbat, in their own home. Churana, who isn’t Jewish, never felt fully accepted as a queer person within the Hindu and Catholic traditions she grew up with but feels connected to the openness of progressive Judaism.

While Mandell would like TzimTzum to develop into a more established organization, they are unsure right now if they want it to become a congregation, per se. Thinking about their upcoming role as a rabbi, they see themselves running smaller groups like TzimTzum.

Hoping to expand the group in its second year, Mandell will continue popular events such as Shabbat dinners, rotating among people’s homes. They would also like to start a conversion group and create more programs such as a Rosh Hodesh group, Torah text study, an introduction to Judaism course and education around Jewish holidays.

Acknowledging the largely 20- to 40-year-old Ashkenazi demographic of the group, they also want to increase TzimTzum’s diversity and make sure even more people feel welcome.

“I want them to come in the door curious for Shabbat, wanting to connect to their Jewish culture,” Mandell said. I hope that they leave with the taste of Judaism and taste of religion.”

Correction: Chel Mandell no longer works at Temple Beth El.

Naomi Friedland

Naomi Friedland is a freelance writer and Bay Area native. She has degrees in Feminist Studies and Psychology from UC Santa Cruz.