Leadership changes at Bay Area Jewish agencies don’t always draw attention. When two new local leaders are married, that’s something else entirely.
Six months ago, Rabbi Samantha Kahn and her husband, Matt Kahn, along with their two children, moved to the Bay Area from Houston to take jobs in the Bay Area Jewish community.
Samantha is the new director of InterfaithFamily/Bay Area and Matt has taken over as the new director of American Jewish Committee’s San Francisco office. The Kahns hope to use their expertise, and the strength of their partnership, to make a difference in the community.
Samantha will counsel interfaith couples and help build bridges between them and the Jewish community, but that’s only part one of her work. She also will focus on ensuring that the Jewish community is welcoming in deed as well as word.
“The Jewish community has not completely figured out how to be truly, actively welcoming to interfaith couples yet,” she said. She’ll begin addressing this issue with teacher and congregation trainings.
Meanwhile, at AJC, Matt intends to focus on “issues of concern to the Jewish community: democracy, pluralism, human rights.” For example, AJC maintains a national Muslim-Jewish advisory council, and he’d like to create a similar body in the Bay Area. He’s also prioritizing work with the Chinese and Indian consulates in San Francisco, and with AJC’s Jewish Religious Equality Coalition, which focuses on religious pluralism in Israel.
In Houston, the Kahns were something of a Jewish power couple, attending galas and events together, with Samantha representing Congregation Emanu El, the city’s largest Reform synagogue, as assistant rabbi and Matt serving as assistant director of AJC’s regional office there.
Growing up in Miami, Samantha had a “very rich” Jewish life and identity, one that she described as “the lens through which I saw everything else.” Rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College brought her to Jerusalem and Los Angeles, where she met Matt. During her time as a student rabbi at Temple Shalom in Yakima, Washington, she began developing opinions on interfaith relationships that would eventually help her land the job at InterfaithFamily.
When she was growing up in Miami, dating non-Jewish boys was “an act of rebellion,” she said. But in Yakima, most of the congregants at the synagogue where she worked were in interfaith relationships.
She was moved by the way those couples sought Jewish knowledge, “even though they were steeped in a culture that clearly wasn’t Jewish.” Meanwhile, her personal family dynamics were changing. An older sister married a non-Jew who embraced Jewish traditions, and her father married a Catholic Cuban. Her ideas about interfaith relationships became “less about theory and more about people.”
Matt also grew up in a tight-knit Jewish community, although his was some 1,200 miles west in Houston. His grandfather was the founding rabbi at Emanu El (where Samantha worked), serving from 1945 until he retired in 1978. Matt said he grew up feeling very much in his grandfather’s shadow, and although he considered rabbinical school, he went into business instead and eventually pursued a master’s degree in Jewish nonprofit management at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, where he met Samantha.
After being ordained, she applied to synagogues all over the country, but in a lovely coincidence, landed at Emanu El and worked there for six years. The couple has been married for nearly seven years.
“She’s the second Rabbi Kahn” at Emanu El, Matt said. “It was very meaningful for people, even though she wasn’t his blood relative. It was a special connection, especially in the eyes of the old-timers.”
While his wife was beginning her rabbinical career, Matt worked at AJC and was for a time the associate director of interfaith relations for Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston. His resume also includes stops as religious school special programs director at Temple Shir Ha-Ma’alot in Irvine and director of education at Temple Shalom of the South Bay in Manhattan Beach.
His interfaith work in Houston included dialogues at local mosques and synagogues, which opened Samantha’s eyes to the possibilities of interfaith work for connecting people.
Samantha hopes to bring those lessons to InterfaithFamily/Bay Area, as she moves away from working as a pulpit rabbi and toward a different kind of leadership.
The echoes between Matt and Samantha’s work are not completely coincidental. In fact, they’re central to the ways the couple hopes to tackle building a new life and community in the Bay Area.
“We love bouncing ideas off each other,” Matt said. “I often will take her advice and try something new at work, or vice versa.”