GatherDC now has a friend on the west coast: GatherBay! Read on and get to know Caroline Kessler, Community Director of GatherBay. A proven builder of community and interpersonal connection, Caroline brings her enthusiasm, energy, and expertise to a new region for Gather, spearheading innovative ways to help 20- and 30-somethings of the Bay Area find relevant, active, and meaningful connection to Jewish life and community.
Caroline’s the type of person who joins a Zoom meeting from a sunbeam with birdsong in the background. She’s the type of person you want to edit your poetry. You definitely want to grab a coffee with her. Read the full interview to find out more!
Samuel: Usually, I’d ask how you found yourself in the DMV but…you’re not in the DMV! So how’d you end up in the Bay Area? What made you stick in Berkeley?
Caroline: I think I was first drawn to San Francisco because I already had some friends who had moved here from undergrad. I had never lived in California but it seemed interesting, and once I got here, I fell in love with the place. The landscape is beautiful, you can be outside all year round, and I met a lot of incredible people very quickly through my college friends. I also got involved in the Jewish community early on. There’s really a kind of an incredible spirit of do-it-yourself, DIY energy here, which stems both from the tech world as well as the punk rock culture of many years ago, which was really inspiring.
I’ve moved away several times, but I actually keep moving back, partly because of the community and partly because of the landscape and ability to be outside. It’s just a really special place to live.
Samuel: Are you into the punk rock scene?
Caroline: Oh, not at all. I make zines. I mean, if that’s punk rock, then yeah. When I was first living in San Francisco, I met some incredible people and one of those folks brought us together for an informal writing group. We would write every Monday and then we started making zines on different topics and creating compilations of other people’s writing, art, and illustrations, like a handmade literary journal. We sold them and then we’d have these big release parties and readings. We created this collective and we’ve probably made about eight or nine zines. That could happen in a lot of places but it seems very connected to the culture here.
Samuel: Speaking of culture-building and community…you’re the Community Director for GatherBay! What led you to that role?
Caroline: I feel like I’ve basically been doing this work for a long time, in many places I’ve lived, but as a volunteer or a lay leader or as a side project. For many years in the Bay Area, I was a participant at various Jewish organizations and initiatives. When I moved to St. Louis, I saw there was a lot of Jewish community but there was something missing. I started taking people to coffee and asking them about their experience with Jewish life in St. Louis, then co-created an independent minyan [Editor’s note: minyan refers to a group of ten or more Jewish adults coming together to pray] called Ashreinu. It was very special to be there and build from the ground up. That’s really influenced my way of understanding how to build community through these one-to-one meetings.
I came back to the Bay Area in 2018 and worked at UpStart and then as a freelance writing / editing consultant for the past few years. This job sort of fell in my lap. It came through a listserv from someone who I knew through UpStart, who sent the email to a Jewish community list-serv I’m on. She had been involved with GatherDC for a long time and encouraged me to apply [Editor’s note: Shout out to our thoughtful, amazing, supportive community members!]. It made a ton of sense because I love building community and there truly is an abundance of Jewish life [in the Bay].
Samuel: What’s unique about the Bay that you’re excited to expand or kindle?
Caroline: There’s a lot of creativity here. I don’t need to kindle that so much – it’s already here. There’s also a lot of alternative expressions of Judaism that began here. Earth-based Judaism, for instance. There’s also a lot of excitement around the arts and Jewishness as they’re related to Jewish ritual and tradition – Atiq: Jewish Maker Studio and the Jewish Studio Project. A lot of people are using different modalities like art or being in nature and mixing those with Jewish culture, practice, and ritual.
Plus, there are a number of established synagogues here. For young adults particularly, people don’t need to commit to something – people can have many different Jewish experiences. Though that can also be challenging, because then you’re like, where are my people?
Samuel: Analysis paralysis, right?
Caroline: Right. There’s a lot of work to be done to continue connecting people to Jewish life and to bring relationships to the center, including building out cohort-based experiences where you can see the same people repeatedly. People are intrigued, too, about bringing more of a Shabbat dinner culture here. I think Shabbat dinner is a sweet way to gather people every week. On the surface, that may seem quite simple. But in some ways, because there’s already so much interesting “alternative” stuff, the work is not to create more “alternatives” necessarily but to connect people to what’s here and then fill in the gaps in other ways.
Samuel: What does your personal relationship with Judaism look like? How have you developed that relationship?
Caroline: I grew up in an interfaith home. My mom is a lapsed Catholic and my dad is Jewish, and my brother and I were raised Jewish. I had a bat mitzvah [Editor’s note: a ceremony and celebration marking a Jewish girl’s entrance into adulthood] and I was very involved in the Reform Jewish world in high school and college. When I moved to San Francisco, I started going to a lay-lead independent minyan called the Mission Minyan, which is in the Mission District of San Francisco. It was a group of people gathered in this community space, singing for an hour in Hebrew. There was so much joy and spirit and energy and I was really taken with it. It was very, very different from the kind of Shabbat services I grew up with. I met a lot of wonderful people there who were from different backgrounds.
A through line: I really love services, I love ritual. I love Jewish holidays. I love to be in community with people. When I lived in St. Louis, I was leading gatherings, including services, for Ashreinu. That had a totally different feel – to be a leader versus to be a participant.
Samuel: What is that difference for you?
Caroline: I aspire to the model of community where everyone shows up and has a role, as opposed to treating people as solely clients or names on a list of attendees. That attitude disempowers people. It doesn’t lead people to feel like they’re part of a community. There have been other times where I show up to something and it’s not clear that it matters if I’m there. When people can show up and contribute in some way that’s meaningful for them, I genuinely believe that’s how true community is created.
Sometimes people feel insecure about their Jewish identity. Maybe they say: “Oh, well, I can’t lead the candle lighting blessing at this Shabbat dinner that my friend just asked me to come to, because I don’t know how to do it.” But actually, that’s fine! They could maybe just bring the wine. We need people to bring the wine and bring the cups and do the blessings. There are many, many different roles people can have.
Samuel: If you could invite any three people to your Shabbat dinner, who would they be?
Caroline: The first person that popped into my head was Oprah. I feel like she’d just be incredible. She’s probably such a great listener, but she’d also be so good at a dinner party. With bell hooks, that would be a really interesting pairing. For someone more contemporary: Brit Bennet. She’s an incredible author. They would just be such a dynamic trio. They have enough in common, I would think, around art and culture and people’s stories that the conversation would just really flow.
Samuel: Is there anything else you’re working on lately?
Caroline: I hope to run another edition of this writing project I’ve run for many years called the 18 Somethings Project. People write for ten minutes a day for eighteen days in a row. My friend Janet and I organize it and I’m just looking forward to diving back into writing and supporting other people in their creativity.
Samuel: Finish this sentence for us. When Jews of the Bay gather…
Caroline: There’s a lot of kale.
Do you live in the Bay Area? Have friends, family, or other connections in the region? Curious about Bay Area Jewish life? Sign up to grab coffee with Caroline here, get in touch with GatherBay here, or take a look at GatherBay’s new Community Coordinator position here!
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