LIHUE, Kauai — For the first time in its 30-year history, Kauai’s tiny reform Jewish community has a permanent rabbi.
It will also celebrate the completion of a new Torah at an interfaith service on the Sabbath that falls between Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, on Oct. 5.
The two events are a significant coming of age for the congregation, which often attracts as many as 100 worshippers to services that are held at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, one of the island’s most popular venues for cultural events and a partner with the Jewish Community of Kauai.
It is also one of the most isolated congregations in reform Judaism and for decades has had to rely on guest rabbis for high holiday services and other important annual liturgical events. For the rest of the year, lay leaders from the congregation have officiated.
Much of the future depends on how the new rabbi, Rob Kvidt, sees his role. He is recently ordained, though he has been a member of the community for 16 years with his husband, Jeff Tucker.
Marty Kahn, who has been a member for almost as long as the congregation has been in existence, said Kvidt’s decision could mark a turning point in the congregation’s history.
For decades, the community relied on lay leaders like Kahn and Dale Rosenfeld, who together kept the congregation together with the help of rabbis who flew to the island to officiate at High Holy Day services. But Kahn and others said that arrangement has made it difficult to provide the kinds of continuity of service that many people need.
“A lot of it will depend on how Rob sees his role in this community, because he doesn’t need to be a community rabbi in order to be a rabbi,” Kahn said, noting that Kvidt “could be a scholarly rabbi.”
But if he steps into the role of the congregational leader, Kahn added “then there is the possibility that…a community can grow around what has never been here before — a permanent, reliable, authentic, ordained leader.”
For his part, Kvidt said, “I’m really open to all these possibilities, because Judaism is not to be practiced alone. So, I like that scholarly part, but I want to share what I know and to be part of a community because, there’s so much joy in that.”
If Kvidt, a former college admissions officer who runs a travel website with his husband, sounds a little unsure of his role, it may be because he was only recently ordained in June.
Moreover, Kvidt is a convert to Judaism from Catholicism. His path to the rabbinate began five years ago when he converted by studying with the late Rabbi Bill Kurry in weekly two-and-a-half hour Skype meetings.
“I just threw myself into it,” says Kvidt, 62, who says he went far beyond a typical conversion process. “Rabbi Bill taught me to read Hebrew and to chant from the Torah.” After a year, he traveled to New York for a “beit din,” a Jewish court presided over by three rabbis who then oversaw his immersion in a “mikveh,” a ritual bath.
Upon returning to Kauai, Kvidt co-led a service with Kahn, which he described as “essentially his bar mitzvah.”
When he sent a video to Rabbi Kurry of himself chanting from the Torah at the service, Kurry suggested he study for the rabbinate. Kvidt felt that it was too soon, that he needed to lead more services and have time to think about it. But after a year, he decided he really wanted to do it.
Now he says, “Every part of my life is falling into place. When I look back at everything preparing me to do this, I really wanted the chance to continue to work with Rabbi Bill and the faculty of the Rabbinical Seminary International (RSI),” where he was ordained in New York in June.
Kvidt will get another opportunity to test flight his role as a “pulpit” rabbi when he joins Rabbi Aryeh Azriel from Omaha, who will officiate at High Holy Day services this year as he has for the last four years.
During the upcoming “Days of Awe,” for the Jewish year of 5780, the community will complete its new Torah — Judaism’s most sacred object. Comprising the five books of the Old Testament, a Torah is handwritten by a specially trained scribe on parchment, following an ancient and highly specialized process.
This Torah was specifically made for the small congregation. Its completion will be celebrated at an interfaith service on Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath between Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement, with congregants from Episcopal Saint Michael’s and the Kauai Jewish Community.
The congregation has been using a Torah acquired many years ago in comparatively poor condition. Island humidity and other environmental challenges have, over time, compromised the document, which is now difficult to read in places.
Father Andrew McMullen, St. Michael’s rector, said his parish “is a community of faith based upon love, compassion, relationship and service to others. We fully embrace the Jewish Community as one of our own as we honor the roots and traditions of our faith.
“In a world that seems to be increasingly divided, focusing on differences and what we are against, perhaps our common life with the Jewish Community can serve as a living reality that we are all one creation before God, and if we are to live into the love that we are created to be, we are going to have to do so together.”
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