Rabbi Baker and the Origins of Congregation Kol Halev

Havurah Shalom, a Reconstructionist community in Portland, Oregon in 1981 is when Kerry and I first met. Kerry was a rabbi at Portland State University, 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