By Jessica Hanewinckel
Members of Kehillat Ahavat Yisrael, commonly referred to as KAY, know exactly who they are as a congregation. Just don’t expect the Carmel Valley shul to conform to any molds. KAY may be categorized as “Modern Orthodox Zionistic,” but understanding KAY isn’t as simple as reading a label. Rather it requires a look at its past and present, as well as its hopes for the future.
Though the shul now includes members whose families come from around the world, its founding members were largely a South African bunch, and they took a very South African approach to their Judaism.
“In South Africa, the majority of shuls were Orthodox shuls, but only a handful of congregants were real Orthodox in terms of shomer Shabbos,” says Brendan Gaylis, KAY’s president and a native South African who falls into that category himself. “We all drove to shul, but it was a full-on Orthodox shul with a mehitza. We’re used to a full Hebrew service. We like that type of approach.”
It’s that unusual embrace of both tradition and modernity, which is sometimes hard to find in Southern California Judaism, that makes KAY unique among self-described Orthodox shuls in the region. In 2003, the absence of anything like it also made it clear to its founders that the creation of a synagogue like KAY in Carmel Valley, where they lived, was essential.
In the almost decade since its founding, membership numbers have soared to around 80 families and dipped to about 40, and it has witnessed the leadership of three different rabbis — the first two didn’t quite align with the congregation in their Orthodoxy; its third, Rabbi Ryan Newfield, who likes to go by Rav Ryan, conducted his inaugural Shabbat service Sept. 1. Through all of this, KAY has maintained several tenets as part of its identity.
First, its modernity.
“Almost all the people in the community, myself included, have not lived all their lives in a traditional religious home,” says Rav Ryan, who is now shomer Shabbos.
The congregation, which is comprised mostly of middle-aged families, sees the world today as a complement to Judaism, not something that must be divorced from it, says the 30-something rabbi.
“‘Modern’ means you take all the blessings of the modern world and use them in your personal and religious growth,” says Rav Ryan, who explains that he sees God in everything and turns every experience, whether it’s hiking or surfing or working with high tech computer software, into a Jewish one. “There’s no reason why you can’t be using the Internet, cell phones and airplanes. My personal belief is it’s a blessing to this earth that has been bestowed on us. The modern side means embracing everything with both hands and not shying away from what the world has to give.”
The second tenet is the shul’s Orthodoxy. Not a fan of labels, Rav Ryan is quick to explain that many in the Southern California region assume “Orthodoxy” means having peyote and wearing a shtreiml and suit. He sees Orthodoxy, instead, “as authentic, living Judaism.”
“‘Orthodox’ means [the shul is] authentic to the religion, the ancient text, the rabbinic literature and the traditions we have,” he explains. “It’s about taking the modern lifestyle, blending it with our ancient wisdom and trying to create the healthiest, happiest human beings in society that we can. That’s what I call living Judaism.”
KAY’s third tenet that unites its members is its unquestionable Zionism. In fact, its name means “the community for the love of Israel,” and its members make a concerted effort to honor Israel at every opportunity, including at an annual tennis tournament/fundraiser, services and celebrations held on such days as Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim and prayers said at services for the Israeli government and the IDF. Not a synagogue in San Diego would deny being pro-Israel at some level, but at KAY, ‘pro-Israel’ isn’t a strong enough word.
“With us, there’s a strong emotional attachment to what is happening in Israel,” Gaylis says.
Though KAY is firmly committed to what amounts to a unique identity, its members welcome Jews of all stripes.
“Not only do I accept people for who they are and what they do, but I believe this is Judaism’s view also,” Rav Ryan says. “It’s also about appreciating them. Everyone’s got a story, and everyone’s got a life. Judaism’s view is that the whole world was created for each individual. How can I not appreciate someone for whatever reason, or because they do x, y, and z different than me? What I do want to do is show that Judaism is about helping you connect to [your life]. Judaism plays a very strong part in allowing us to have the structure to fully appreciate the life we’re in.”
With its 10th year approaching and a new rabbi on board, optimism, positivity and excitement for the future are in the air, and KAY’s members are eager to grow their congregation.
Of the thousands of Jews living in Carmel Valley, the majority are unaffiliated. That leaves a huge population for KAY to reach in terms of growth.
“Judaism is all about living life to the max,” Rav Ryan says. “I want to show them that.”
Kehillat Ahavat Yisrael
San Diego Jewish Academy
11860 Carmel Creek Road
San Diego, CA 92130
Office Mailing Address:
4653 Carmel Mountain Road, Suite 308-513
San Diego, CA 92130