Maybe one day we’ll tell our first meeting like a parable. I was struggling to light a tall, propane-powered heat lamp and that’s when Rabbi Gray showed up. Under their guidance, we lugged, tapped, and troubleshot the stubborn lamp until the flame was lit. In those few minutes, I remember my mood changing, too. I’d been alone at an event, feeling a little awkward, but after talking with Gray, I felt connected and activated, curious, more open to things somehow, eager to re-immerse.
In a wonderful coincidence, we met again recently on Zoom to discuss Gray’s new gig as GatherBay’s Community Rabbi, the many joys of teaching, finding radical expansiveness in ancient texts, the power of open doors, and where to savor the best vegan ice cream. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jason: Gray, hello! So tell me—what brought you to the Bay?
R’ Gray: I grew up in San Francisco, and when I graduated from rabbinical school in 2017, I knew I wanted to come back to the Bay. I had the good fortune of landing at Kehilla Community Synagogue, where I worked the past six years. It’s been wonderful to get to re-meet the place where I grew up as an adult and get to know the East Bay in a much deeper way than I did when I was a kid on the other side of the bridge.
Was Jewishness a big part of your early life?
I was raised with a sense that I was Jewish, but I grew up outside of organized Jewish community. Since my dad is Jewish and my mom is not, my parents weren’t able to find a religious community that reflected or embraced our family. Hopefully fewer mixed-tradition families have an experience like that today, but it does still happen, and people may also struggle to find a Jewish community that reflects them and their family for a wide range of reasons.
For my family, Jewishness was something that lived in the home. Passover was a big holiday for us and I grew up loving our seder traditions—ritual foods, the symbolism, the stories. After I started working at Kehilla, my parents joined, and are incredibly supportive and engaged in the Jewish life I now get to make for our family as an adult.
Were there other early figures who had an influence on you?
I have wonderful clergy role models in my family. My mom is from Norway, and I have one uncle who’s a bishop in the Lutheran church there and another who’s a bishop in the Norwegian Catholic Church. As I’ve become a rabbi, it’s been meaningful to be in conversation with them; we have a lot in common and a lot to learn from each other.
Looking back on your road to becoming a rabbi, where do you think that interest began?
My way into becoming a rabbi was through the world of books and stories. In college, I was an English and Religion double major. English was a given, since I’ve been a writer as long as I’ve been anything; I was really involved in the Bay’s slam poetry community as a teenager.
Religion was more of a surprise, but at college, I found such a home in the religion department. Even though my professors weren’t Jewish, they modeled how to be curious and humble scholars of their own traditions. That posture appealed to me, and it was in those classes that I found my way into Torah study.
Were there any early moments of inspiration that stand out?
My brain lit up the first time I sat down to learn the Mishnah, the text that makes up the oldest layer of the Talmud. Those rabbis wrote with this incredible “yes and” vibe. They were totally loyal to the tradition they inherited, and also found so much room to make change. I was inspired by the idea that we get to both inhabit the tradition and play with it, too. It’s ours.
I love that idea of tradition and text that’s still alive. What was rabbinical school like?
I went to Hebrew College Rabbinical School in Boston for five years. There was an incredibly steep learning curve, because I was coming with little formal or even informal background, and I was learning Hebrew from scratch. Luckily, I was blessed with an amazing community of fellow students and teachers to support me, both at Hebrew College and at SVARA: a traditionally radical yeshiva.
Your first rabbinical tour of duty was with the youth programs at Kehilla—any surprises as a rookie rabbi?
I can’t say this completely surprised me—but it delighted me, which is a little bit like surprise—that people are so ready to learn. Young people in particular, as long as you meet them where they’re at. I think sometimes adults need more permission to understand that they’re safe to play and learn. When they do, there’s so much curiosity and creativity that’s possible within the frame of Jewish learning.
It feels like such a gift to get to tell someone, “This tradition already belongs to you. I’m just here to help.” One incredible part of being a rabbi is that there’s a way into Judaism for every kind of person who is interested. There are so many different ways in, and I see my job as opening as many of those doors as possible.
What an image! I love, love, love the idea of the infinite doors.
For many centuries, Judaism survived at least in part through being somewhat difficult to access, and that was a really powerful survival mechanism for our tradition. But now I think we’re living in a time when accessibility is an even more powerful survival mechanism. And not just that, but also a powerful way of reaching towards a future that we may not yet be able to fully picture.
On that note, what drew you to GatherBay?
I’m SO excited to join GatherBay. I feel such synchronicity in their orientation towards relationship-based community-building and engagement. That idea of the doors and helping people find their particular way into Judaism is embedded in the organization at every level.
I’m eager to take everything I learned in a congregational context, bring it to individuals in the Jewish Bay Area, and then also feed the roots of the Jewish community and all the great institutions here. I love Gather’s orientation of network abundance, that there is something for everyone, Jewishly. And if it’s missing, we get to help create it, which is amazing.
Yay! How about the role itself—what will you be doing?
I’m going to be out there meeting individual community members, seeing what people are looking for in their Jewish lives and helping them find it. I’ll be leading Jewish learning cohorts. I’ll be there as people move through threshold and milestone moments in their lives and want someone to sit and reflect with, or if they need some rabbinic support. Some of the role will be emergent, too, as we hear more about what people need.
Before we wrap up, I quickly wanted to ask about your art—what does that side of your existence look like?
Rabbinical work is often in the social and intellectual realms, so it’s nice to have a concrete hands-on practice like ceramics where I can access a different way of being. I love making and gifting things like menorahs, candleholders, vessels for matches. Shout out to Studio One Art Center run by Oakland Parks and Rec!
Okay, onto our lightning round and in-house Proust Questionnaire. Tell me a poem, book, movie, play, or piece of art or media that you love.
I’ve been reading the Book of Delights by Ross Gay and I’ve been so moved by the way he describes the relationship between grief and delight and grief and joy.
What is the Bay’s best-kept secret?
If I knew the Bay’s secrets, I wouldn’t tell them! But I think the vegan soft serve at Curbside Creamery in Temescal is really, really good.
When was the last time you felt some kind of spiritual connection?
I try to get out and into the incredible East Bay nature with my trusty sidekick and dog friend, Poppyseed, as many days a week as I can. Whether I’m in the redwoods or in the hills or by the Bay, feeling myself as a member of an ecosystem is so helpful and orienting.
If you want to grab coffee with Rabbi Gray, they’re here for ya! Sign up here and check the box, “I’d like to chat with a rabbi.”
GatherBay Profiles is our interview series spotlighting the vast array of community members doing rad things! Released twice per month, the series aspires to celebrate GatherBay’s greatest treasure—the people around us. Want to be profiled? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.