Setting Down Roots On The Upper West Side


When a congregant asked Georgette Kennebrae, the newly installed spiritual leader of West End (Reconstructionist) Synagogue on the Upper West Side, whether she would ever run out of the stories she often tells from the pulpit, she responded with something like a prayer.

“May we never run out of stories as long as we are living on this earth,” she said with her characteristic calm.

Stories are important to Rabbi Kennebrae, who, as many rabbis do, uses them to connect to her congregants and make her sermons relatable. Having chosen to convert to Judaism and to become a rabbi as an adult, Rabbi Kennebrae, 41, already has a lifetime of stories to draw from, in addition to the stories from Mussar (ethical teachings) that she loves to study.

That connection seems to come easier to the rabbi than it might to others. Having grown up in a military family, with a childhood spent moving from place to place every two to three years and becoming acquainted with new languages and cultures, Rabbi Kennebrae relishes the opportunity to create new relationships and stories.

“You get really good at making connections and showing up and really being able to identify opportunities and places of connection.”

“You get really good at making connections and showing up and really being able to identify opportunities and places of connection,” she said of her unusual childhood.

As the spiritual leader of a Reconstructionist synagogue — and a significant one in Manhattan — Rabbi Kennebrae is stepping to the pulpit at a time of change for the movement, the smallest and most recently organized American Jewish denomination.

The Reconstructionist movement has been reinventing itself in recent years. Earlier this year, the rabbinical school and congregational union, formerly known as the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Jewish Reconstructionist Communities, announced that it would be renamed Reconstructing Judaism. In 2015, the movement’s rabbinical school announced it would accept students who were in committed relationships with non-Jewish partners in a debate that bitterly divided the movement. The movement’s controversies pose an added challenge to rabbis trying to maintain a commitment to tradition while remaining relevant in an increasingly progressive community.

“Where do we innovate and how do we innovate in a way that retains traditional grounding and will resonate with people,” said Rabbi Kennebrae. “Part of our job is making sure Judaism remains meaningful and that meaning looks different for different people and different communities. That’s what makes Judaism beautiful.”

Rabbi Kennebrae was first drawn to the rabbinate by her interest in chaplaincy and pastoral work, thinking she would become a military chaplain. But throughout her internships at the Reconstructionist Synagogue of North Shore on Long Island, the Bristol Jewish Center in Pennsylvania, and Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in Manhattan, she found herself becoming more interested in congregational work.

“It’s much more difficult to grow old with people in the military because you move every two to three years,” said Rabbi Kennebrae. “That longevity and that connection and those deep roots are really important to me.”

“That longevity and that connection and those deep roots are really important to me.”

Pastoral work is central to her identity as a rabbi. “In order for people to be able to show up as their full selves, they want and need and crave the ability to have someone support them and see them for who they are and where they’ve come from and where they want to go,” she said. “That chaplaincy piece is part of everything that I do.”

For Rabbi Kennebrae, as well, showing up as her full self is important. “The egalitarian space was always important to me. As a lesbian, a woman, an African American … in all of these ways, it’s really important to me to have full inclusion and to understand that that’s part of my role as a rabbi.”

“I think her pastoral skills are really quite amazing,” said Sharon Cinnamon, president of West End Synagogue. Rabbi Deborah Waxman, president of Reconstructing Judaism and Rabbi Kennebrae’s teacher and mentor, added: “I think she values deeply and understands how to build an intentional caring community in a city as diverse as New York.”