It’s not every day that a Jewish community organization hires a trained shochet, or kosher slaughterer, for its staff. But a Bay Area federation did recently, even though his knives won’t be needed.
Rabbi Andrew Kastner will begin his new job as director of community impact at the Jewish Federation of the East Bay in July, overseeing grant-making and community programming. It is his latest stop on a journey that has included a focus on food. He spent the last year as a consultant on educational and agricultural projects, after a job directing a Jewish food justice fellowship at the San Diego-based Leichtag Foundation.
Kastner, 36, traces his original interest in food to his mother. Early Hanukkah presents were children’s cookbooks, and he was always invited into the kitchen to help.
“I learned that the kitchen is a place of joy and creativity and giving and transformation and experimentation, and all about connection,” he said, adding that he learned about eating seasonally by growing up in the Cleveland suburb of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, not far from a large Amish community.
By the time he got to college at Indiana University, he said, “My passion and curiosity developed into real skill, and I loved that acquisition of ability.”
With his future wife, whom he had met at summer camp, “Cooking was a way I could express my creativity and artistry, but it also became a medium for sharing and bringing people together,” he said. “We’d have dinner parties and brunches and we created this web of commonality and storytelling and food sharing that I’ve been carried away with ever since.”
After reading a 2002 New York Times article about industrial meat production by U.C. Berkeley professor Michael Pollan, Kastner became interested in the fledging ethical kashrut movement. He tried, unsuccessfully, to visit kosher slaughterhouses in Michigan while he was living in Ann Arbor from 2002 to 2004.
“I was this curious and sincere, naive student, who wanted to see if I can just tour and have some questions answered, and see if I can learn some of these skills, but I wasn’t getting anywhere,” he said. “I’m a disrupter and an antagonist, so I knew I had to figure out a way to do this myself.”
That led him to apprentice in 2004-05 with a shochet of Yemenite descent in Israel, who often took his students far out into West Bank settlements to witness, for example, the schechting, or ritual slaughtering, of a goat.
“To witness it up close, it rocked me in a way that felt so overwhelming and deep,” said Kastner. “I was bothered by this sense of voyeurism and guilt, but I was also engaged with the complexity of it. What was not evident for me at the time was where is the connection to holiness and that transformation, and I realized I had to immerse myself more deeply in it as both a student and practitioner.”
Kastner said that he knew he wanted to be a rabbi from the time he was 10, even though he grew up in a Reform family that was not very observant. Gravitating toward a more observant life, in 2005 he entered New York’s Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, an Open Orthodox rabbinical seminary, where he was ordained in 2010.
Kastner applied for a sustainable land-use grant to start a farm in Ohio’s Cuyahoga National Park after finishing rabbinical school. He was already married and had a child, though, so he took a more stable position as a Hillel rabbi at Washington University in St. Louis for three years, 2010 to 2013.
Rabbi James Brandt, CEO of the East Bay Federation, said Kastner’s unusual background will help him as he starts his new position.
“Andy’s wealth of experience as a rabbi, Jewish educator, university chaplain and a progressive and innovative grant maker will all serve him well as our incoming director of community impact,” Brandt said. “There is great anticipation and excitement for the expertise, care and spirit that Andy will bring to his work as a Jewish community professional and leader.”
Kastner’s wife, Leslie Cohen Kastner, will become director of admissions at Marin Montessori School. The Kastners — also including Asher, 7, and Nora, 4 — will live in Berkeley.
“We’re really so enthusiastic to be part of this culturally rich and engaged community,” Kastner said. “There’s just an energy and vitality and magnetism around it drawing us in. We can’t wait.”