Soon-to-be-cantor Jessica Leash is one of the founders of Ha-Emek, which has since rearranged itself into Silicon Valley Jewish Meetup.
Soon-to-be-cantor Jessica Leash is one of the founders of Ha-Emek, which has since rearranged itself into Silicon Valley Jewish Meetup.

Year-old congregation is a well of Renewal in a valley of tech

On a recent Shabbat, I ventured down to San Jose for a Friday night service. It was the first anniversary Shabbat of Ha-Emek, a new, volunteer-run, Renewal-affiliated congregation.

The night I attended drew two dogs and about 20 people (50s and up, plus two teenagers) to a low-key service of music and reflection on the community’s first year. Services were followed by a friendly potluck dinner at a member’s home.

Musically, the service was led by Jessica Leash, who will receive her investiture as a cantor in January from Aleph: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. She was joined by a few other musicians, including on guitar and hand drum.

The music was a surprising cocktail of what I think of as the Reform standards of my childhood cantor (Cantor Jaime Shpall, now of Beth Am in Los Altos Hills) with far fewer of the chanting, meditative, occasionally ecstatic Renewal-type tunes I’d expected.

We began with the most standard of Hinei Mah Tov tunes, then moved into candlelighting. There were tea lights on the coffee table in the living room, and people got up to light for themselves.

Rabbi Jeremy Sher
Rabbi Jeremy Sher

Ha-Emek’s other co-founder, Rabbi Jeremy Sher, wore jeans and an off-white linen shirt with the Aleph emblem embroidered on the chest. He speaks off-the-cuff and from the heart, sometimes halting to search for the right word. When he prays, he bounces on his toes or rocks back and forth intermittently, eyes often closed for a moment or several.

Before Lecha Dodi, he set an intention for Shabbat: “If you’ve felt a need for belonging, a longing for love, a longing to be understood — we have that in this room, and we have it as long as Shabbat lasts.” This place is a warm embrace.

The tune for Lecha Dodi was another Reform-ish surprise: “yai lai lai lai lai Lecha Dodi.” Most in attendance sang along, but with minimal gusto.

When I chatted with her during dinner, Leash told me about how she chooses tunes. At first, she said, she may have pushed too hard with unfamiliar melodies. Most Ha-Emek folks come from more mainstream synagogues, so Leash has course-corrected to use more music that’s familiar to them.

Between every other prayer or so, a congregant was selected to share some reflections on the congregation’s first year. First up was Eric, a member of the board. He spoke about a community that is “radically inclusive” and committed to “deep ecumenicism.”

In the name of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the late founder of the Renewal movement, he shared the metaphor that compares the divine to an aquifer. Deep underground there is a single aquifer, and each well where it comes to the surface is a different religion.

This ecumenical spirit is important to Eric because his partner is Hindu. On Friday nights, they come to Ha-Emek. On Saturday mornings, they go to a Hindu temple. While Eric sits and reads the week’s Torah portion, his partner goes about his prayers, he told the group.

There was a consensus among the assembled that Ha-Emek’s sukkah would never have come together were it not for their resident Hindu.

Next up: Tov Lehodot (from Psalm 92), to a tune by Rabbi Ilan Glazer and the Israeli liturgical music collective Nava Tehila. I love this tune — repetitive, chantlike, and accompanied by a shruti box (an Indian squeezebox that creates a single, consistent drone). This is the kind of thing I want from Renewal! It ramps up as we cycle through it several times.

Every one of us has a perfect kosher prayerbook written on our heart.

And for Barchu, we moved into the Reform/summer camp canon. (More lai lai lai.) Depending on your Jewish circles, you’ve either never heard this tune in your life, or you’ve heard it more times than you can count.

For Maariv Aravim, we did a song composed by Rabbi Noam Katz called “Roll Into Dark.” It combines some of the Hebrew of Maariv Aravim with English lyrics: “Roll into dark, roll into light / Night becomes day, day turns to night.” I’d never heard it before. Sometimes I like Katz’s music, but I didn’t initially react well to this one.

Then I looked around and noticed that everyone was really into it, singing along with the gusto that had been missing earlier. So what do I know?

Before we said Shema, Sher talked briefly about its meaning. “What sort of god does Shema refer to? If it’s only about the unity of ‘my god, not that one,’ you’ve already missed the point,” he said, before again referencing the well metaphor from earlier.

For the first line of the Shema, we did the Renewal shtick where everyone holds each word as long as they can — very meditative, very exhausting. Leash’s pipes are incredible!

Leash chanted V’ahavta in English but according to the Hebrew trope, using the translation in Ha-Emek’s siddur, the Renewal standard P’nai Or. (That translation happens to be by Rabbi Burt Jacobson, founder of Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont.)

Between the two prayers, Sher talked a little about the short history of the group. While Renewal has a long presence in the Bay Area, it is mostly associated with the East Bay. Sher told us that everyone believed Renewal would be a hard sell in the South Bay.

“Rabbinic colleagues told me it’ll never work. ‘They don’t want renewal in Silicon Valley.’ ‘They’re too staid.’ ‘It’s been tried before, and it just didn’t work,’” Sher recounted. “But everything has been tried before and didn’t work! There is nothing new under the sun, as we read on Sukkot. Nothing works until it does.”

Everyone nodded knowingly.

There was some open discussion during these interstitials. Member Vicky shared: “I wasn’t happy at my other synagogue.” A friend suggested she try out Ha-Emek. To her surprise, she liked it. “There are prayers and music I don’t know. It’s stretching my Judaism. This is still a weird way for my to practice Judaism,” she said.

Laughter. Sher praised her as a “truth-teller.”

Introducing the Amidah, Sher went full neo-Hasidic: “Every one of us has a perfect kosher prayerbook written on our heart.”

Dinner was as heimish as it gets. Everyone chatted amiably, discussed the ingredients in dishes and who can eat what, and so on.

For Sher, the dinner is the key to the whole thing. Some people want kosher food on their plate. Some people want vegetarian. Some are gluten-free. “If you don’t care that other people have different stuff on their plate, you’re welcome here,” he says.

During a champagne toast to their first year, an older gentleman in an uncommonly loud green sweater dotted with large figures of golfers said: “In the ’60s, this is how a little shul in Cupertino started. It’s called Beth David. It too started in a house, and now it has 600 or 700 members” — “500!” corrected one woman — “and you have a lot to look forward to.”


Epilogue

The man in the sweater turned out to be right, albeit not quite the way he meant. In the weeks since my visit, the situation has evolved: Sher and Leash are parting ways. He will continue to develop and lead Ha-Emek, though its format will, necessarily, change a little.

Leash is starting something new, Silicon Valley Jewish Meetup, which can be found on Meetup.com. From what I can tell, it will be pretty similar to Ha-Emek.

“Partially, it’ll be the same thing I’ve been running — service with potluck, same feeling as when you went,” she told me. Her first monthly service with the new group will be this Shabbat.

“And the next thing we’re doing is a meetup to go see ‘The MeshugaNutcracker,’” she said.

The details of the schism aren’t really my business, but I notice that Sher and Leash (and, for the most part, the congregants I met) agree on one thing above all: South Bay Jewish life needs a breath of fresh air. (This being the Jew in the Pew’s first glimpse of Jewish life in the area, I’m not in a position to confirm or deny.)

“My goal hasn’t changed,” Leash told me earlier this week. “Judaism in Silicon Valley and South Bay is not as welcoming as it can be, and I’m hoping to provide another avenue for people to feel welcome and supported.” And I know from conversations with Sher that he feels the same way.

Whatever is next for South Bay Jews who encounter Leash or Sher, I know it will be friendly, earnest and authentic.

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is the online editor of J. and "Jew in the Pew" columnist. He can be reached at david@jweekly.com.