Making Room for Everyone in The Kitchen

What does it mean to be Jewish? With our history, our diversity, and our – let’s just own it – love of vigorous debate, trying to get a short answer to that question would probably give Maimonides a migraine. 

This subject is often discussed with our families around our own kitchen tables but, luckily, living in the Bay Area affords us the ability to be able to also talk it out at The Kitchen – a religious community deeply grounded in serious exploration of Jewish tradition, text, and ritual.

Noa Kushner

Founded by Noa Kushner, one of the country’s most provocative and engaging rabbis, The Kitchen is part synagogue, part “spiritual cooperative,” and part of an emerging movement to reach out to individuals who are looking for a personally meaningful, enriched Jewish experience. And “being” Jewish has very little to do with it.

Rather, the folks at The Kitchen spend their time “doing” Jewish. And that philosophy has led to its becoming one of the most innovative and inspiring “startups” in the Bay Area, with packed services, Shabbat dinners, educational programs, and activities that defy “typically Jewish” expectations – from a Purim party in Chinatown to a Chanukah celebration at the Brick & Mortar Music Hall in the heart of the Mission.

Yoav Schlesinger

“One of the things we think about most is how we can break down barriers of access to Jewish life,” said Executive Director Yoav Schlesinger from his San Francisco office. Accordingly, “participation” and “engagement” are greatly encouraged at The Kitchen’s functions, but in an inclusive way that respects the many different paths to Jewish practice that its members (and non-members) have taken. Indeed. they don’t care if you are the son of a rabbi or “if you are Santa Claus himself.” What matters most at The Kitchen is, quite simply, showing up. And, since launching in 2011, people have been showing up in droves with nearly one thousand people attending their last Kol Nidre service and many more at their wide variety of events throughout the Bay Area. 

“We are doing old and holy things in new ways.” – The Kitchen Field Guide

Hello Mazel Passover box, 2016

The Kitchen has recently been awarded a three-year $150,000 Federation grant, to serve as seed funding to build capacity for several promising earned income streams designed to help the organization extend its reach and fortify its financial model. Among those initiatives are its Hello Mazel Jewish holiday subscription box, which has already raised over $150,000 for over 1,600 subscriptions through a nation-wide Kickstarter campaign.

“It’s been remarkable. We launched in February with a Kickstarter campaign that became the most funded Jewish project in Kickstarter history. Our goal was $18,000, but we raised $152,000 in 20 days.”

The Hello Mazel boxes are sent all over the country four times a year and contain everything from artisanal chocolates to Passover playing cards. But everything in every box, even the items that appear to be completely secular, are thoughtfully considered and touched by Torah.

“I’ll give an example,” added Schlesinger. “Our last Passover box had a pound of coffee in it. Obviously, there’s nothing inherently Jewish about coffee, but when you connect it to the theme of Passover and think about what coffee is and how its touch of bitterness can make a thematic connection to our enslavement; and when you discover how, as fair trade coffee, there was no modern day slavery involved in its production and distribution to your door, it creates Jewish connections for people in something that can appear mundane.” 

The Hello Mazel campaign is premised on an idea that a communal experience of Jewish life is not necessarily the right entry point for everyone. “We have customers in rural Kentucky who live a hundred miles from the nearest synagogue. So, for those people, we are trying to find the best Jewish content we can find, and deliver it to their door. So they don’t have to go somewhere to access it, they don’t have to opt in. All they have to do is receive it.” In other words, all they need to do is pick up their mail to carry out this act of Jewishness.

Yoav and Rabbi Noa are excited about their new Federation partnership. “It’s been a challenge in finding the right fit in large part because we don’t fall in the normal categories of conventional Jewish life, but this feels right. With the Federation’s support, we hope to grow even more.”

The Kitchen grant is from $1.1M in new grants dispersed over five years through the Federation's Endowment Fund to outstanding community partners actively engaged in building and deepening Jewish community. 

Categories: Grantees, Community


September 13, 2016


Jon Moskin