Not Your Bubbe’s Rabbi

Zvika Krieger brings traditional texts, radical self-expression to Berkeley’s Chochmat HaLev

Krieger, who joined the Jewish Renewal community last year after a stint at Meta, discusses his religious outlook and journey to the rabbinate

Growing up in Los Angeles, Zvika Krieger had a traditional Orthodox Jewish upbringing, but his journey into spiritual leadership is an unusual one that includes a Jewish day school education as well as the discovery of Burning Man as a place for Jewish prayer and connection. 

After a two-year stint at Meta, where he served as its first director of responsible innovation, he was chosen to serve as the spiritual leader for the progressive, Berkeley, Calif.-based Chochmat HaLev. A trans-denominational Jewish Renewal synagogue, Chochmat HaLev attracts congregants of different ages and experiences to its services and programs, using study, ritual, meditation and the arts to connect them to Torah, Kabbalah, traditional texts, contemporary commentary and the lived experiences of its diverse community. Krieger is in rabbinical school at ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal and is also seeking private rabbinic ordination, but even once he gets semicha, don’t call him a rabbi: The term doesn’t resonate with him and he doesn’t intend to use it, he told eJewishPhilanthropy in a wide-ranging interview. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Esther Kustanowitz: You’ve had quite the journey to Jewish leadership. How does your Orthodox upbringing inform your work at Chochmat HaLev, which is an entirely different kind of Jewish practice?

Zvika Krieger: I grew up Orthodox, but went surfing before school, to punk rock shows in Hollywood, to raves out in the forest to dance to electronic music but wearing my kippah, and making sure I’m home in time for Shacharit (morning prayers). There’s no reason why you can’t do all those things. I still keep strict Shabbat and still keep kosher, and I pray three times a day… [Growing up,] I was deeply immersed in Tanach (the Hebrew Bible), Gemara (part of the Talmud) and halacha (Jewish law), through the Orthodox lens. But it gave me agency in my own Jewish journey. I could look into the sources and come to my own conclusions, rather than relying on gatekeepers who layer their own agenda on top of the text or tradition. It made me feel empowered when it comes to ritual, ceremony and marking lifecycles and milestones.

EK: You describe yourself as a “subversive ritualist and radical traditionalist,” held jobs in journalism, with the U.S. government and tech companies, and tackled issues ranging from Middle East politics to climate change and responsible innovation. What professional description best describes your work?

ZK: Whenever a new opportunity comes my way, the first question I ask is, where can I make the most impact, help the world and advance the causes I care about? But the second question is, where can I learn the most? [In] the world that we’re living in, where challenges are so multimodal, you can’t just have a government solution, or just a private sector solution, or an NGO or civil society solution. You need to be able to see things from multiple different perspectives… A throughline in most of my career is innovation and challenging the status quo of stodgy traditional organizations that have brought me in to shake things up, to challenge conventional wisdom. Whether that’s the U.S. military or the U.S. State Department; the World Economic Forum; or an 80,000 person company like Meta, I’ve always been the intrapreneur or entrepreneur [who brings] a new perspective. My latest version of that is Judaism, the oldest institution of them all. While I was at Meta, I was also in rabbinical school. 

EK: You might be the only person who can say that. Did you experience any overlap of skills or experience?

ZK: What I was learning in rabbinical school around pastoral counseling and spiritual guidance was very relevant to the work that I was doing at Facebook, where I helped product teams surface ways in which their products might potentially harm people. My job was actually to bring complexity into the conversation, rather than reduce [it] to false binaries. That was directly informed by the work that I was doing in rabbinical school — learning about not telling people what to do, but helping them tap into their own sense of inner wisdom. There are denominations of Judaism, where the job of the rabbi is to tell you what to do. But that certainly isn’t the type of rabbi I am training to be.

EK: So now you’re Chochmat’s spiritual leader, but you’re still working on your path to rabbinic ordination. 

ZK: I’m not your typical ALEPH rabbinical student — I have many years of yeshiva learning — so it’s really been a bit more of a DIY journey. One of the reasons I love ALEPH is their ability to accommodate people from different backgrounds. I’m also in the process of getting private rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Art Green. Both should be done next year. But the title has so much baggage: people have so many assumptions and expectations around what a rabbi is and I often don’t align with those expectations, so I tend to not use that word. I promised myself when I started rabbinical school, that I would never become a synagogue rabbi — famous last words. When Chochmat came calling, it’s just such a unique community, and such a perfect match for my unique eclectic theology and approach to living Jewishly that it was just too good an opportunity to pass up.

EK: You said that more traditional organizations bring you in to challenge conventional wisdom, and that the latest example of that is Judaism. How does that manifest for you?

ZK: I put on my product designer hat when I took this job and interviewed 50 to 100 people who are not inspired by the current offerings of the institutional Jewish world. They want a Judaism that is deeply progressive, but also substantive, deeply rooted in our ancestral wisdom, our lineage, our tradition, our rituals, our ceremonies. A lot of progressive Judaism feels thin to them… There’s a sense of spiritual meaning and depth that people are not getting from the current way that Judaism is taught or practiced in many communities… Historically, the people who have had access to our deep wisdom and lineage and tradition and texts tend to come from more of a culturally conservative worldview. So to get connected to the deep wisdom and the richness of our tradition, you have to do it through a culturally conservative lens, which I don’t think is inherent to the tradition, I think it’s something that’s actually layered on… I feel really blessed to have had access to it and to be able to be that bridge for people. I also think that people are looking for a Judaism that is fun, joyful and embodied, that it’s not just cerebral, but something that you can have embodied experiences through and connect deeply to community. There’s a graying of the line between what has historically been considered sacred and profane; you can bring a levity and an irreverence and and subversiveness to the practice that I think really resonates particularly with millennials and Gen Z, but with a lot of GenXers and Boomers, as well. 

EK: What is your relationship to philanthropy, personally and for Chochmat HaLev? And how is everything at Chochmat being funded?

ZK: A lot of my relationships, members of Chochmat and our donors come from the tech world. People in Silicon Valley, who have made a lot of money, and were driven to create these products that are having a questionable impact on the world, are realizing that they’re really hungry for meaning… Silicon Valley has been so good about creating products that people want to use. How do we turn those tools and mindsets to spirituality and meaning and community… People are really hungry for meaning and connection, and they’re looking for it in all the wrong places… People want things that are deep, and substantive, with this ancestral lineage behind them. 

EK: Explain more about how you observe these seekers and what they want.

ZK: Whether it’s my drashas, the classes that I teach, gathering people for small groups and being able to do that work not just at a cerebral level, but creating space where people can actually go deep… a space where people can deeply feel their emotions, the embodiment technologies of Judaism of prayer, singing and dancing — having these prayer services where you’re not just sitting there with a prayer book and mumbling the words, but you’re actually feeling it in your body, and you’re dancing, you feel that energy coursing through the room, and you leave that cerebral intellectual space, and enter a more somatic embodied space. People are yearning for that, because we were just sitting at their computers all day, it’s like, how do I get into my body? People say I don’t want to talk about God, or learn about God, I want to experience God… And we have the technology to do that in Judaism. 

EK: How does your approach differ from mainstream Jewish offerings?

ZK: A lot of the institutional Jewish world [says], “Here’s what we offer, why aren’t people coming?” instead of “What do people want?”… For example, one thing I’ve heard consistently from people, is that so many people are working from home and they’re lonely, missing the relationships that they used to have at the office. People are looking for meaning in their work, particularly in Silicon Valley, where hundreds of thousands of people were laid off in the past six months. People are realizing, “This thing that I’ve been pouring my heart and soul into, it can be gone in an instant; I need to find meaning elsewhere, or ways to infuse my work with meaning.”  In response to that demand, we are prototyping a soulful coworking space at Chochmat, where people can come during the day. It’s not a Shabbat prayer service, or a young professionals happy hour. In the morning, we have a check-in and an intention-setting; in the afternoon, we’re going to have a check-out, and you can share what happened during your day. We have opportunities for 15-minute meditation sits, have a spirituality discussion over lunch, or if you want to have coffee with folks during the day to make new friends. I’m not saying, bring spirituality into the workplace. I’m saying, bring spirituality into the way that you work.

EK: You credit Burning Man, an annual self-created, pop-up desert community, as part of your road to the rabbinate. How?

ZK: A lot of people use the term “once-a-year Jews” to refer to people who only go to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. But there’s a whole other class of once a year Jews, which is people that the only Jewish experience they have is Shabbat at Burning Man, once a year we have 1,000 people who show up for that service. The camp that I co-lead is called Milk and Honey. People would say things like, “Rabbi, where can I come to your synagogue, this is the first place that I’ve ever felt like Judaism really speaks to me,” and I was like, “I’m not a rabbi, I don’t have a synagogue.” Something clicked for me: these people are not being served; they are looking for spiritual depth, where they can bring their full authentic selves and don’t have to leave part of themselves at the door. One of the core principles of Burning Man is radical self-expression — people want to be able to have a place where they can talk about sex and polyamory and psychedelics, and get access to deep ancestral wisdom and prayers and liturgy and meaning and feel like God is present there and that you can connect to God. Those things aren’t paradoxical. They’re actually core to spiritual practice. 

EK: How are you intersecting with Jewish philanthropy?

ZK: Chochmat is funded primarily through dues and donors. We have a pretty healthy membership base, which has been steadily growing post-COVID. My goal is to make Chochmat self-sustaining…People in the institutional Jewish world hear about the work that I’m doing, [and say] “Jewish foundations will never fund this work. It’s too provocative, too out of the box.” But the numbers speak for themselves. We’ve tripled the number of people coming to Friday night services at Chochmat over the past year, 200-300 people praying, singing and dancing, some staying until midnight for “heartspace,” a progressive spin on this Hasidic tradition of a tisch, sitting around a table singing, chanting, eating and drinking, sharing Torah and having guest speakers on topics like Judaism and polyamory, or Judaism and psychedelics. That’s been funded by the San Francisco Federation. In conversations with foundations, I often say, “Don’t think about whether this resonates for you. But there’s lots of people, many of whom you’ve probably never met, whom this does resonate for.” 

EK: Who is the average Chochmat HaLev congregant? 

ZK: One of the things I love about Chochmat is that it’s such a wide range of people, people who alternate between going to Chochmat and the Orthodox synagogue in Berkeley; people who are not even Jewish, who come regularly and are members or serve on our board, and all across the spectrum. [Some] grew up traditional and left, explored Eastern or other types of spirituality, and then came back in their 20s, 30s, 40s, even 50s and 60s. And so it’s a full range…People want deep intergenerational connection; a lot of millennials and Gen Z tend to be either geographically distant from their families of origin, or philosophically, theologically, and culturally distant from their families of origin. Chochmat has really cool elders, who have been on their own journeys, and have a lot of wisdom to share. 

EK: Are any innovative elements of Chochmat’s activities exportable to other contexts?

ZK: I see Chochmat as an incubator for things that can be scaled across the country. A lot of communities study what we do…A lot of the funding that I’ve received has been to capture case studies, so that we can then share with other communities around the country and scale it, which is the Silicon Valley mindset of prototype, test, iterate and scale. Chochmat is not for everyone, I’m sure there are lots of Jews on the Upper West Side or in suburban New Jersey who would not resonate with the kind of Judaism that I’m trying to build. But I can tell you, there are lots who are resonating; Chochmat is part of a broader movement that’s brewing.