Berkeley synagogue has its own first black president

When she worked in advertising years ago, Katherine Haynes Sanstad was the only woman put on a Chevron account. When she worked in HIV prevention, she was the only straight person on her team. So being the only black president of a local Jewish congregation doesn’t faze her in the least.

Sanstad is used to being the exception. “I’m very comfortable,” she says, “being neither fish nor fowl.”

A Jew by choice, Sanstad, 49, currently serves as president of Congregation Beth El, a 500-family synagogue in Berkeley –– her spiritual home since 2001. Before starting her two-year term, which expires later this year, Sanstad served as the congregation’s vice president, chaired the religious school committee and led the search to replace longtime Beth El rabbi Ferenc Raj (Rabbi Yoel Kahn stepped into Raj’s shoes in the summer of 2007)

Katherine Haynes Sanstad. photo/dan pine

The synagogue also has seen its cantor and rabbi-educator depart, and has confronted the sorts of economic challenges nonprofit institutions face these days

All in a day’s work, according to Sanstad. “We had those transitions to face,” she says, “and it’s hard. But it’s exciting. These kinds of transitions make you reflect on who the congregation really is.”

At her congregation, she and her colleagues found a yearning for spiritual and intellectual engagement.

“We have a synagogue of religious people and staunch atheists,” Sanstad says. “At each end of the spectrum, people vividly claimed the synagogue community as their own, and wanted to find a way to express their connection and path to Judaism through the Beth El community.”

Kahn says Sanstad has “a Yiddishe neshama” (a Jewish soul), and feels Beth El has been in good hands with her at the helm.

“She brings professionalism, integrity and love,” he adds. “She’s helped move us forward in many ways, and is responsive and gracious and kind when there are people in need.”

Sanstad converted in 2002. But she had pondered the option for years. Sanstad grew up in Pasadena, born into a Catholic family. She says her Catholic experience helped her on her spiritual quest.

Catholicism “created a placeholder for something with deep, long roots,” she says. “It was liturgical, with holidays and a cycle through the year.”

Sanstad later attended high school at the Branson School in Marin. One of her classmates there, Bradley Artson, went on to become a nationally known rabbi and author (he is dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles). Artson proved influential in pushing Sanstad closer to Judaism.

Meanwhile, she went on to forge a successful career. After earning an MBA, she pursued opportunities in the health care and public health sectors. Today she works for Kaiser Permanente as the organization’s Northern California executive director for diversity.

She and her husband, Alan Sanstad, are an interfaith couple. They have two sons, ages 10 and 15, both of whom are growing up with a Jewish education. “One reason we came to Beth El is I knew there would be a whole community to help me raise Jewish sons,” she says. “I was right.”

Throughout her tenure as president, Sanstad has aimed to bring her professional expertise to the table.

“My goal,” she says, “has been to bring some of the advancements in not-for-profit management to Beth El, which faces several challenges: the need to grow membership, the need to answer the yearning of the congregation for spirituality, social action and community, and to be sure that we could financially succeed.”

In Berkeley, Sanstad notes, the synagogue isn’t the only game in town. There are many minyans, a Hillel, a JCC and a Lehrhaus Judaica among the options for Jews shopping for a spiritual home.

“There are lots of ways to express yourself as a Jew without ever affiliating with a synagogue,” she adds. “It’s a challenge we need to think about when you have a fluid society where one can express Jewish values in organizations that are not religious.”

And as for standing out as a black Jewish woman synagogue president, she couldn’t be prouder.

“It is an honor to have been selected president of this congregation, which has a long history in Berkeley,” Sanstad says. “I think it speaks to Beth El’s boldness and willingness to take a chance.”

Not unlike the nation taking a chance on its first black president. In fact, when Barack Obama won the election in November, Sanstad says, “I turned to my sons and I said, ‘So you do know the bar has been raised in terms of my expectations for you.’ ”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.