Our Founding Rabbi
Kerry Baker
(Of Blessed Memory)

Rabbi Kerry Baker

Rabbi Kerry Baker (Of Blessed Memory) founded Congregation Kol Halev in 1997.

He then led the Congregation through its first decade and remained a much-respected and beloved member of the congregation until his death in 2021.

Below are tributes to Rabbi Baker from Rabbi-Cantor Robbi Sherwin, former CKH President Lorenzo Sadun, early congregants Steve and Kathi Cramer, and Debbie Lyons, an Adult Bat Mitzvah student of Rabbi Baker, who also shared Rabbi Baker’s love of baseball and was part of his decades-long Thursday noon Torah Study group.

Rabbi Baker and the Origins of Congregation Kol Halev (by Rabbi-Cantor Robbi Sherwin)

Havurah Shalom, a Reconstructionist community in Portland, Oregon in 1981 is when Kerry and I first met.

Kerry was the Director of the Portland Jewish Education Association, Mark was in law school at Lewis & Clark, and I was one of the cantorial soloists of Havurah Shalom – just getting started in my Jewish music career.

Our children, Jessica and Ben, had been born just a few months apart – as a matter of fact, Kerry had attended Jessica’s brit bat, which was a big community event.

This was a very warm congregation – very outside the box, and I can’t help but think it was a model for what was to come decades later.

When Kerry became the director of Texas Hillel in Austin, Mark and I had also moved back from Portland, and we continued to see each other at music events, Jewish holidays and other very Austin venues – such as Armadillo World Headquarters and Liberty Lunch – we shared an intense love of all kinds of music.

Kerry was a walking encyclopedia of music culture – secular and Jewish.

When he became the rabbi at the Kerrville Folk Festival, he invited me and others to lead services with him there.

Kerry opened up a whole new world of music to me – both Jewish music (he was a big fan of The Chassidic Folk Festivals held in Israel every year), and secular music made by Jews.

Through Kerry, I met and played music with Peter Yarrow, Berniece Lewis, Billy Jonas, Chuck Brodsky, David Amram, Janice Ian, and many others.

I was a cantorial soloist at Beth Israel in Austin when Kerry called me into his wonderful old brick office at Hillel.

He knew that CBI had decided to hire an invested cantor and I would no longer have a job transmitting Jewish music, something I was passionate about.

He shared with me his vision of a post-denominational congregation that would welcome all Jews exactly where they were and grow a community of seekers.

He promised me that he would always support me, he would teach me, and he would trust my heart.

I jumped at the chance to work with him and we started gathering the volunteers and supporters needed to create this special community.

He also brought on Amy Adler, a long-time friend and co-choral director of mine who had been active at Hillel in his last years there.

Amy had vast experience davening conservative melodies and she was a perfect complement to my more contemporary style.

Kerry’s love of music helped bring in many, many Austin musicians who never felt that they were truly welcomed at mainstream congregations and we found a place for all of them.

We held our first service on December 17, 1997 at the Sri Atmananda School in Hyde Park.

Not thinking we would need a sound system, we were completely surprised when 200 people showed up – we had only printed around 40 prayerbooks.

We moved around a bit until we became the first congregation on the Dell Jewish Community Campus, using the community hall as our space for many years.

From a completely self-published siddur (prayerbook), to very innovative B’nai Mitzvah, to the very first rock Shabbat  – Friday Night Alive! – in Texas, and only the 3rd in the country – to completely contemplative Yom Kippur afternoon services featuring local Jewish musicians, we found many ways to embrace Jewish commonalities, all while pushing the envelope.

Rosh Hashana in 2001 took place days after 9-11 and Kerry brought in clergy from all faiths to lead us in prayers.

We continued to be a bottom-up organization where the needs of the community came first over what the clergy thought we should be offered.

The empowerment that all these wonderful volunteers felt in creating Kol Halev, and making it a model for other communities of its type, has changed the face of Judaism in our lifetimes.

In the decade that Kerry and I were partners at Kol Halev, he never broke those promises to me, and he continued to support me, to teach me and to trust my heart for many years to come.

I consider him one of the greatest mentors of my life.

Rabbi-Cantor Robbi Sherwin

Learning about Judaism with Rabbi Baker (by Lorenzo Sadun)

Anita and I have always been into do-it-yourself Judaism. Whether it’s settling on a family kashrut standard or finding the right Torah verses to put in our Haggadah, we love the idea of studying, debating, and finding what is most meaningful for us.

So when we heard that Kerry Baker was building a congregation based on doing that as a group, it was a challenge we couldn’t turn down.

The next few years were an adventure of learning about Judaism from Rabbi Baker.

We didn’t just pray. We thought about what the prayers meant, and how they fit with the modern world.

We didn’t just send our kids to Sunday School. We helped craft lessons. We sang, and we learned to chant Torah.

Under Rabbi Baker’s guidance, we came to understand Judaism, and appreciate Judaism, in a way that wasn’t possible in any other congregation.

Rabbi Baker wanted me to call him “Kerry”, but despite our friendship, I never could. He was, and always will be, רבי My teacher. My Rav.

–Lorenzo Sadun

Rabbi Kerry Baker (by Steve and Kathi Kramer)

When Steve’s career took us to Austin, we didn’t know what to expect in the way of a Jewish community there.  Knowing that we were Jewish, his new boss Kay introduced us to Lynda and Kerry.  We thought maybe they were the only Jews Kay knew in Austin, but in any case, as newcomers to town, it was the best introduction we could possibly have hoped for. 


Lynda and Kerry could not have been more hospitable, and we spent a lot of good times with them. 


For months Kerry had been talking to us about his vision of an open and welcoming congregation, welcoming to Jews of all stripes. We were both intrigued with his ideas.  After one of our dinners together at our home, we got into a deeper conversation about such a congregation, and we started talking about what it might be called.  While our memory is fuzzy on who exactly came up with the name Kol Halev, it was certainly a collaborative effort, and upon revisiting the name days later, it still resonated. 


Once the group got going, we were greatly inspired by Lynda’s energy, and Kerry’s spiritual depth and his ability to move our hearts in ways we had never experienced in a congregational setting.  We saw that in other members of Kol Halev as well.  Services there always  took us far beyond the liturgy.  Rabbi Baker attracted wonderful, capable officers and members, not to mention musicians whose music soared like we’d never heard in a synagogue.  We’ve yet to find anything like Kol Halev.


Steve’s job took us to Denver in 1998, but we remained friends with visits and attending several family simchot.  We also renewed our 25th anniversary wedding vows on May 24, 2014, where Kerry and Lynda came to Denver to officiate, sign our Ketubah and celebrate with us. 


As a founding board member (Steve) and as the founding administrator (Kathi), the memory of this spiritual, fascinating man is truly a blessing for us. 


Steve & Kathi Cramer

Denver, CO

My Rabbi (by Debbie Lyons)

— by Debbie Lyons 2/12/22

When speaking directly to him, it was always “Rabbi, ….” When speaking of him, it was “The Rabbi ….” I never addressed him as Rabbi Baker until his funeral.

He was the only Rabbi I’d ever known. Therefore, it seemed odd to me that I would ever need to identify him singularly by name.

He earned top rabbinical billing not only because he was my first Rabbi, but more so because of who he was; and the fact that I was privileged to enjoy a deeply spiritual relationship and personal friendship with him.

We met many years ago when he served as a substitute teacher one night at the Florence Melton class that I was taking then at the JCC in Austin.

I was immediately impressed by his aptitude as a scholar and teacher, his ability to clearly share his wisdom about all things related to Judaism with others, and his eagerness to do so without judgment.

I felt welcomed and respected by him as he opened the door to my identity as a Jewish person/woman.

He encouraged me, and that initial happenstance meeting would develop into a treasured relationship that we would sustain over the coming decades.

I never got bored or tired of studying at his feet. My Rabbi introduced me to Judaism and brought spirituality to the forefront of my life.

Following our meeting at the Florence Melton class that fateful night I joined the congregation he had formed in Austin, Kol Halev.

It was the first time I had ever belonged to a congregation. Subsequently, I became a Bat Mitzvah under his tutelage along with that of Rabbi Sherwin, and when he laid his hands on me near the end of the ceremony, I felt the presence of holiness.

When I later learned that he led a Torah Study group I jumped on board and joined him each week for Torah Study classes.

During my 15 years with the group, he led us through our study of Torah to the end of Leviticus and I’m sad that we won’t complete the journey together.

I always imagined that we would.

My memories of him are vast. His jokes, his love of music, his ability to weave movie quotes into everyday experiences, his extensive personal library of books, and his love of a good hat come to mind.

I always felt a special connection to him through our mutually deep love for baseball, which I managed to weave into my D’vor Torah speech at my Bat Mitzvah!

And I felt that he always enjoyed and understood my sport references during Torah Study class.

Beyond these characteristics and the many other special memories of him that I keep, I will lovingly and gratefully remember his eternal support for and belief in me.

“We shall miss him on the infield and shall miss him at the bat…” From a poem titled “Speaking of [Hank] Greenberg,” by Edgar A. Guest.

Other tributes can be viewed on Rabbi Baker’s tribute page at Austin Natural Funerals


Contact Us

PO Box 150396
Austin, TX 78715

Phone: (512) 419-0945

Email: info@kolhalev.org