Our community's greatest strength and most precious resource is its members. We honor the range and variety of the talents and experiences our members bring to the community, and appreciate and rely on the support they give to the congregation through participation and financial contributions. -- Kolot Chayeinu Values Statement

We're Ready: A Short History of Kolot Chayeinu

by Rabbi Ellen Lippmann

It's May 12, 1991 and Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk places his hands on my shoulders as a symbol of ordination, looks deep into my eyes with his and asks, “Are you ready?” My answer is, “I hope so.” It has taken me years to stop turning to see who else was in the room when someone said, “Rabbi.” 20 years later I can finally answer “Yes,” I am ready for this work which requires me to look deep into people’s hearts and lives, to do my part to repair this broken world, to lead prayer and offer words of wisdom, to teach children and adults a Judaism they can live with. I became a rabbi because of Sally Priesand, the first women to be ordained a rabbi in 1972. Reading all the news of those days, I said to myself, “That is what I want to do.” I began in 1986, moving to Jerusalem for a year, leaving Kathryn and 4 year old Emma behind. 

My first job as an ordained rabbi was as the East Coast Director of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. While working there, I realized I missed having a Jewish community I could feel at home in and, at the same time, many people were saying, “We have not found a congregation we like. You should start something.” I revived an idea I had as a student, that of “eating first” before prayer or study, and gathered a group to talk about it, and about my unformed idea to create a café like the old Garden Cafeteria on the Lower East Side – overcooked vegetables and the liveliest conversation among and between tables that I had ever seen. We would never put up with that food any more, but I longed for the passion of the talk. 

I come from a long line of synagogue starters, my grandparents were relatives and congregants of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan when they began the Society for the Advancement of Judaism. My parents were part of the renewal of a moribund congregation in Virginia, where they both served as president. Synagogue life was for me an extension of home and we were at services every week. There and through a vibrant Jewish home life, and camp (but never because of the dreadful Hebrew school), I became a Jew myself. I think I wanted a shul-café as a sort of home or camp extension, a way to shape non-formal Jewish learning and life through food, fellowship and art. 

Eight people showed up and we sat around our old dining room table and talked about shul-cafes, and the bima in a coffeeshop. Judith Kane was there and Peter Kleinbard, along with Kathryn and me, and others who sadly are gone, or moved away. By the second meeting we began “each one bring one,” and Arthur and Lisa came, and very soon Phil Saperia, and Lisa Magidow and Evan (z”l) Ahearn, who brought their landlords Greg Cohen and Viviane Arzoumanian, and later came Andrea Bernstein and Liz Schalet, and Judi and Michael (z”l) Forman, and more. Natalie Levy was our first president, her husband Jerry Levy did our incorporation, and we were off and running.

The first Shabbat dinner was music and story, Shabbat mornings came to be food and Torah study, and the first Rosh haShanah was said and sung around dinner tables in a church basement. Eighteen years on, and Kolot Chayeinu has grown past imagining. Once we were 8, now we are 340. Once our school fit in Peter Kleinbard’s basement, now we have 120+ kids in the school which thankfully meets in MS 88. My hope is that we still find ways to instill and enliven and enact Judaism in a way that matters. My hope is that one child, or maybe two, of the 120 now at Kolot, will one day want to become a rabbi. that one day Kolot will find a physical home that will embrace, rather than suffocate us. And my hope is that this experiment in Jewish life will continue to grow with each new person who walks through the doors, with each new song we sing, with each lesson taught or prayer spoken and yes, that one day Kolot will have a café, part of the whole that is all the voices of our lives.

April 2011

18 Years Of Our Voices: A Timeline

Slideshow: The Story Of Kolot Chayeinu - created for our Chai Time 18th Birthday Party

© 2017 Kolot Chayeinu | Voices of Our Lives