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Back in action: KC Kollel hires new full-time rabbi; begins serving the community as holy days approach

Rabbi Shaya Katz

The KC Kollel has hired a new full-time rabbi, Rabbi Shaya Katz, and has begun offering a series of educational programs in the community once again. Last year, a transition year for the Kollel, Rabbi Ari Adler offered some programming on a part-time basis in addition to his full-time teaching position at the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy. Rabbi Adler left the area last month.

“He was the one who kept the candle burning so even though the fire had diminished, we weren’t totally dormant and we are grateful to him for the service he provided, but it was always understood that there was only so much one person could do on top of a full-time job,” said Kollel Board President Jerry Bernard.

The KC Kollel began in 2007 under the leadership of then-Board President Dr. Jay Robinow. The four rabbis studied together each morning. The afternoons, evenings and Sundays were devoted to teaching others in either group settings or one-on-one classes. By 2015, the KC Kollel was made up of two rabbis, Binyomin Davis and Elchanan Schulgasser. Both left the community in the summer of 2015 for other opportunities.

Bernard said the departure of the Davis and Schulgasser families — both Gevura Davis and Bracha Schulgasser also were deeply committed to the community and played large roles with the Kollel — presented the organization with the challenge and opportunity to re-evaluate its goals.

“They were here about nine years, which is highly unusual in the Kollel model. Typically, it’s three or four years,” he said, noting that the families had built quite a following here before both rabbis felt it was professionally time to move on.

Already a “leanly run organization,” Bernard said the board asked, “What does the Kollel do, what should it be doing, how can it best add value to the community? Also, how will the answers to these questions inform what the next step is?”

As the organization searched for answers to these questions, the board was expanded to include a wider variety of constituencies in the community.

“We know the Kollel’s primary purpose and primary success has been outreach — finding interesting, engaging conventional and unconventional ways to connect Jews in any stage of their connection with Judaism, with the wisdom and tradition that Judaism has to offer, as well as strengthen their connection with the Kansas City Jewish community, if they are so inclined,” Bernard said.

“I would say that the people who most took advantage of the Kollel services were the people independent of synagogue affiliation, background … we really wanted the Kollel to be the place for someone who just said ‘you know I want to find out more’ would find to be the right fit.”

Another consumer of Kollel services is one who wanted more traditional learning. These people wanted lunch and learnings at their offices and such things as spiritual preparation for the holidays.

“Those people are already connected. These aren’t people who want to find out more, they are saying, ‘I want to find out more in a very focused way. I know what I’m looking for’,” Bernard explained.

Bernard said the Kollel wants to continue its in-reach focus and expand its outreach focus. In addition to offering ways for people to connect to Judaism and the community, the Kollel wants to work in more collaborative ways with communal organization such as Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy, Jewish Family Services and Jewish Vocational Services.

“There have always been some partnerships, such as the Ahoovim special needs program,” said Bernard. “We want to find out how we can help other organizations achieve their goals and objectives, opposed to exclusively or even largely going straight to the recipient of services. … We felt, why recreate the wheel and why not enhance some of the institutions already here in the local community?”

As the board talked to people, Bernard said they learned there was a lot of loyalty from those who had participated in the Kollel.

“We found everything from very deep relationships to the rabbis and their spouses, to deep connections to the learning and particularly a women’s group through the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project that were cheerleaders or the organization,” Bernard said.

In early 2016, they launched a search for a new Kollel rabbi — only one is in the budget for now — with the help of Yeshiva University. 

“We were looking for someone who was really good with outreach, who would connect well with people, would have a pluralistic community focus and would really enjoy the nature of what I would call the entrepreneurial Kollel opportunity,” said Bernard. “The ideal would be a couple where not only the Kollel rabbi but also his wife, formally or informally, complemented the effort.”

About 40 resumes were received from Israel and all parts of the United States. Two visited the area.

“It became pretty evident to us that Shaya and his wife Rikki were the right fit in terms of looking at this as an opportunity to do things that are both important to them and also what the community needs. Rikki will eventually work on a part-time basis, while she goes to school,” Bernard said.

Rabbi Katz has already begun teaching classes (see full schedule page XX) and has had one-on-one sessions with others. He is excited for the months ahead.

“I urge people to reach out and see what we can do. We can tackle any topic that they have in their imagination,” said Rabbi Katz. “We are here really to service people who are willing to grow or who want to be willing to grow. Really anything and everything is on the table.”

Bernard hopes the Kollel flourishes under Rabbi Katz’ leadership and in the next two or three years considers expanding again.

“It would be my hope that we have a need to have another couple, but of course that’s a function of how well we do our job now, including the financial realities,” Bernard said. 

For now, he wants to see Rabbi Katz become very busy.

“Put this guy to work, make him work hard. Call him and have a cup of coffee, or and let him pick your brain because he’s got a lot to learn about our community. Or get a group of friends together and call Rabbi Katz and invite him to come teach. Virtually no topic is off the table.”

Bernard would also like to see the Kollel coffers grow.

“Would I like people to feel that this resource is important to the community, such that it merits some of their philanthropic dollars? Of course I would; but that is not the first step. The first step is connecting or re-connecting with the services offered by the Kollel. There is no financial requirement to have Rabbi Katz talk to your group about whatever subject you want to know about Jewish life. The funding part, if it’s going to happen, should be an unsolicited, voluntary part of the experience.”