Growing up in Canada, Jess Kerman never had to pay attention to U.S. politics. Then she moved to Washington. The 33-year-old rabbi-in-training is running Am Kolel Jewish Renewal Community of Greater Washington’s KolBo, its Judaic resource center.
How did you end up in Washington?
I’m in my final year of rabbinical school. That bought me to the States. I was in New York studying and had finished all my coursework and I was just working on my thesis. I was introduced to Rabbi David Shneyer and … I started volunteering for Am Kolel.
I always used to joke that I didn’t need to know much about American politics because they’re not mine. Now, I’m in the thick of it and if I’m going to engage all Jews through social action, that means political social action. I’ve had to learn a lot.
What kind of work do you do at Am Kolel?
We recently rebranded the Judaic Resource Center as the KolBo. Everybody’s in it. It’s supposed to feel very collective and inclusive.
My pet project is doing engagement work for people in their 20s, 30s and early 40s who work in Montgomery County. There’s all kind of stuff happening in D.C., but not a lot happening in Montgomery County. There’s all kinds of younger folks that are moving out [here] and they work in the city. And after work, they’re too tired to go back. I’m trying to figure out what people want [in the area] and build a community.
What made you decide to become a rabbi?
I was the rebellious Sunday school student. My Israeli teacher said I was the toughest boy in his class. When I finally had my bat mitzvah and was free, I was at home and terribly bored. My two sisters were still going to [Hebrew] school. So I just started hanging back at the shul and they gave me a job.
First, I was working in the library and then I was teaching there. I taught for several years. At the same time, I had taken a class in religious studies. Having the chance to look at Judaism from a more mature perspective and on my own terms [made me] very enthusiastic about it. And from then on, I knew I wanted to make a career out of it.
What kind of congregation do you want to work for once you become a rabbi?
I don’t know if synagogues are the future. People are rejecting the large synagogues and building up these independent minyanim.
But right now, at least when I’m young, I’m into finding more smaller- scale niche communities. One that has a specific aesthetic and doesn’t necessarily cater to a large audience and so they’re doing something special.
It’s tricky with these independent minyans because we kind of put ourselves out of a job as rabbis. But there’s such a massive wealth of knowledge in Judaism that you need to be an expert. So I just hope to be a resource for people.
Are you ready for Chanukah?
I already had one serving of latkes at a Shabbat dinner. [But] I never feel ready for Chanukah, it just kind of sneaks up on you.
I’m excited to have a doorway where I can put my oil lamp [menorah] but I am not a big Chanukah person overall. Our holidays were in September, October.
Glenn, my partner, converted, and he’s used to having that kind of Christmas spirit and he wants to make a big deal out of Chanukah. And I don’t think that’s the right comparison. It’s our own small holiday and we have our other bigger holidays.
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