Meet Kendell Pinkney of “Saturday Night Seder”

Below is a transcript of a conversation that took place live on Facebook between JTS rabbinical student Kendell Pinkney and Be’chol Lashon content manager Andrew Esensten.

Andrew: We are live here with Kendall Pinckney. He is a JTS rabbinical student who lives in Brooklyn and he appeared in the really wonderful “Saturday Night Seder,” which was streamed online on Saturday night. Kendell, it’s a delight to speak with you. Thanks for making time to speak with us.

Kendell: Oh sure thing, yeah, I was so happy when you reached out and happy to hop on.

Andrew: Wonderful. Would you please take a few minutes and tell us how you came to participate in “Saturday Night Seder?”

Kendell: Sure, yeah, it all came together really, really quite last minute. So, I guess here’s a little bit of background. My background is in music and theater. Over the past year I got involved with this organization called Reboot. It’s a Jewish arts and culture organization that really tries to reimagine and reinvigorate Jewish traditions by engaging artists, entrepreneurs, activists, and the like, and catalyzing them to produce work that move some Jewish conversations forward.

So I got involved with them and went to a summit where I ended up meeting a lot of really wonderful people, and it just so happens that the person who is the head writer for the “Saturday Night Seder,” we became friendly, he reached out, was like, “Hey, you want to contribute to this?” and I’m like, “Yeah, let me hop on that.” Reboot was a co-presenter of the Seder, so long story short, someone asked me, and I was like, whatever I can do to contribute to a good cause.

Andrew: So far the Saturday Night Seder video has 1.2 million views [on YouTube] and I just checked online and over $2.6 million has been raised for the CDC Foundation to help with research efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic. So mazel tov to you and everybody involved.

Kendell: Seriously, it’s kind of humbling to know that when people put their minds and their energies and talents together that they can really bring such great energy to highlight a good cause. So it’s really humbling to be part of that, and ultimately that’s the best part of being part of that Seder, that we were able to contribute to raising money for research.

Andrew: You told a story on the Seder broadcast, and it was kind of cut a bit short, and I was hoping that for our viewers you could maybe tell the full story, the unedited story, about your experience with this special Passover experience that you had.

Kendell: Sure thing. Good eye to see the editing. But first things first, it makes complete sense that it was edited. They wanted it to run a certain amount of time, and I’m a pretty long-winded person. I am a rabbinical student, after all. So my actual Pesach memory was actually about this organization that I was a part of a while ago, and still am involved with. It’s called Laba. It’s a laboratory for Jewish artists who come together and study Jewish texts around a theme for a year. In my year we studied around the theme of physical beauty, and so we study about this theme, look at rabbinic and biblical texts on it, and then create works of art based on those themes.

It was a great experience, and around the time of Passover every year Laba does this thing called a “memory piece,” where you bring the entire group together and everyone brings a piece of food or a drink that’s connected to a deep memory that they have, and they tell that story so that way everyone else in the group gets to taste a bit of it and connect that taste to your memory.

In my case, I ended up sharing…Grandma’s Cookies. You know like those super, super sweet cookies? I think that they’re produced or at least distributed by Frito-Lay. My dad used to work as a deliveryman for Frito-Lay, and I really love those cookies, and so anytime I see Grandma’s Cookies I associate it with my dad making sure to swipe me a pack of cookies, almost like to let me know he was thinking about me. So that was the memory I shared with everyone there. I brought a few of my favorite cookies, the oatmeal raisin Grandma’s Cookies, and it was great to be able to share that with everyone and have them share their memories. By the end of that we were all just like in tears, either from laughter or from seeing people share these vulnerable, moving memories.

Andrew: Thank you for sharing that. Would you please tell us a little bit about your background and your journey to Judaism and to rabbinical school?

Kendell: So trying to do the nutshell version, I grew up in a black megachurch in Dallas, TX. It’s called Concord Church. I grew up in a religious family, religious Christians. We were very serious, very sincere, very committed to our tradition and to that faith. So I grew up with all of that and also with the heritage of having plenty of preachers in the family. So there were definitely some thoughts that I was going to be a preacher when I grew up because I got involved with the arts when I was pretty young. I was in an international touring boys choir from about the age of 11 through the end of high school.

I ended up going to Oberlin College and conservatory after I finished high school, and while I was there I found myself drifting away from the religious community that I had grown up in for a number of reasons that I don’t have time to get into. And I was really intrigued by Judaism. It was something I was aware of even though I didn’t really grow up knowing any Jews, and so I decided that I would go to a Friday night service and then I would go to the meal after.

As I often like to recall, I went there overdressed with a Protestant Bible in hand thinking it was going to be like a Bible study service. So then when people started praying in the language that I did not understand, and standing and swaying and everything, I was like, what is going on? But I was intrigued and so I kept going back and kept getting more involved in things with Hillel, studied with the rabbi there, the rabbi at the time. After I graduated from Oberlin I moved to New York to do a masters of fine arts at NYU. And once I finished with that degree some of the work that I did immediately after was in the Brooklyn Jewish community, as I like to call it the Brooklyn Judeosphere.

The more that I kept getting involved with doing b’nai mitzvah tutoring because I had a fair amount of Hebrew from studying abroad in Israel, so I did that, I joined the synagogue staff, I taught after school Jewish education and also ran the Jewish youth group. It was like all of these things just pointed towards, ok it seems like you like doing this, this is meaningful for you, what’s the next step to really enable me to gain more skills and also increase my impact within the communities. So it seemed like going to rabbinical school made a lot of sense, and JTS was a perfect fit for me.

Andrew: Because of coronavirus you are no longer meeting in person for classes. Are you doing online learning, and how are you continuing to be involved in Jewish life from home?

Kendell: Right, great question. As with most places, [we’re] still trying to figure out how this all works. But you’re right, we’re now learning online. It’s great to see, I mean it’s sad to not be in person with my professors and with my colleagues, but it’s been really impressive to see just how everyone’s taking it in stride and is adapting so well.

In terms of participating in Jewish life, I’ll be real, it’s difficult because there’s nothing that takes the place the place of being in person and doing Jewish in person. I would say that I’m doing a whole lot of learning, going to a lot of online learning sessions, in some cases hopping onto a Kabbalat Shabbat before sundown on Shabbat, and getting a little bit of virtual community before I head into Shabbat proper.

Also I’m just finding more time to connect with my peers and check in with people. I have to admit, I’m an introvert, so I’m actually doing okay with some of the distancing and solitude stuff. But even with that being said, it becomes that much more important to really take the time and energy to keep up with people. One of my favorite rabbis at JTS, Rabbi Bill Lebeau, who used to be the dean of the rabbinical school, I have a weekly learning session with him, which is just like food for my soul. He’s such an inspiration. So I’m finding ways.

Andrew: As we all are. What do you hope to do with your rabbinate once you finish and graduate from JTS?

Kendell: So once I finish and graduate from JTS, what I really hope to do is bring together my love for the arts and my love of Jewish texts in order to be what I like to think of as an “arts rabbi.” To some extent that means just continuing my own artistic work, so that’s one part. And then the second part would be actually working with artists, whether it’s artists who are very much identified as involved and religious Jews, to artists who would describe themselves as artists who happen to be Jews. I want to be able to support them and connect them to the texts and the wisdom of their heritage [and] be able to provide pastoral counseling to them.

Also, if they want to think of how their work intersects with their Jewishness, I’m very game for having those conversations, because I do think that one of the things that can be frustrating is that in the Jewish community and in many communities, it seems that artists aren’t really taken seriously unless they get a big prize or they win a big award. But it’s like, artists end up contributing so much to culture and to the progress of culture. So I really want to focus on supporting them because I think that they give so much to the world, more broadly, and to klal yisrael [“the Jewish people”] more specifically.

Andrew: You are an artist yourself, correct?

Kendell: I am, yeah.

Andrew: Tell us about your your artwork and also your your work with Kaleidoscope Jews?

Kendell: I started out with getting a degree in vocal performance at Oberlin. Well, I shouldn’t say I got the degree, I started out in the conservatory of music and then decided maybe a career in opera wasn’t what I really wanted, though the experience was amazing nonetheless, and then ended up getting a masters of fine arts in musical theater writing at NYU Tisch. So a lot of my work is now focusing in writing musicals or more frequently, writing plays. I’m constantly writing things that explore the themes of Jewish identity, the black experience in America, and how those experiences intersect with religion, collective memory, heritage. I’m always working on like four or five different things that are at different stages, so who knows, maybe one day I’ll have something on a stage once we get back to life as well, maybe not normal, but life as somewhat what it was.

My work with Kaleidoscope Jews is somewhat tied into my work as a theater artist. About five or so years ago I was asked to be the associate producer for this new monologue showcase that highlighted the stories of Jews of color and Jews from Sephardic and Mizrahi backgrounds. That was “Kaleidoscope,” which was founded by the renowned spoken word artist Vanessa Hidary, and we had a cast of about 12 or 13 folks who went through a series of intense writing workshops, where even though most of them were not performers, they wrote very personal, well-crafted monologues about their experiences not being part of the Ashkenazi or Ashkenormative narrative. It was really popular and we developed it into a traveling video workshop, which, granted we can’t do much traveling right now, but the hope is that with time we’ll be able to also figure out a way to offer that virtually as well.

Andrew: I can say, personally, I’m really looking forward to seeing your plays come to fruition and come to a stage sometime soon. I’ve actually really missed being able to go to the theater to watch a production. I’ve streamed a couple of shows on BroadwayHD over the last few weeks. It’s great, but it’s not the same experience as being in the theater.

Kendell: Exactly. Thank goodness for BroadwayHD and for the creativity of the theater professionals who are facing this really, really difficult moment. But, yeah, you’re right, there’s nothing like being there in person. Especially the theater world is one of the other sectors that’s really suffering right now, and so I’m glad to see that there are any number of people who are really trying to find ways to support artists as they go through this really difficult transitional time.

Andrew: Absolutely. Do you have any favorite shows that you’ve seen over the past few years that you would recommend? Excluding Hamilton, of course, because we all know that that’s fantastic.

Kendell: Exactly, it’s fantastic. Sure, goodness, I’m trying to rack my brain especially to like the last few years…

Andrew: Or at any point, just your favorite shows.

Kendell: If we’re going to favorites, I have those in spades. Alright the list: Company, obsessed with Company, and I really wanted to see the revival with Katrina Lenk that went up. Everything that happened kind of halted that. I love Company. I also love Caroline, or Change, so fantastic. Really a big fan of Ragtime, Threepenny Opera. And then so many more I can name, but as many people would say, you probably can’t go wrong with Sondheim. I’m a big Sondheim fan.

Andrew: Good to hear, so am I. What advice would you give to other Jews of color who are interested in going to rabbinical school and becoming rabbis?

Kendell: The first thing that comes to mind is: Hebrew, Hebrew, Hebrew. Get on your Hebrew, learn your Hebrew, learn it as best you can. I mean on the one hand, it’s hard to gain access to the nuances of some of our fundamental texts and traditions without Hebrew, but also it’s one of the major languages of our people. So inasmuch as a person can really take the time to improve their Hebrew and add in a smattering of Aramaic as well, I think the returns on that investment will just be so high, so that’s the first thing.

The second thing is, and maybe this is self-evident and maybe even possibly cliché, but it’s really important to embrace the fullness of all of one’s identity. I would say that it took me a while to not closet or compartmentalize all aspects of my identity. As a black man who grew up in the black church in the south—and it wasn’t because I was made to feel like I didn’t belong at JTS, in fact JTS has been very warm and welcoming and affirming of my background, rather it’s just when you are one of the only people of color at your institution, and the first black person who’s going through the rabbinical program, I did not necessarily know exactly how I can bring all of myself.

I would say that this past year has really been a chance to kind of really test that: Can I bring my full self? And thankfully I’ve found through my conversations with friends, professors, colleagues, people are much more willing for you to be exactly who you are. At least I can speak for JTS, and that’s been amazing, to feel welcomed and to feel held. Inasmuch as a person can bring their full identities to the seminary process, I would say do it. I would say those are probably the two main things that I would give as advice.

Andrew: That’s really valuable. Thank you for sharing that.

Kendell: Also, reach out to other Jews of color if you are having questions, if you’re having concerns. Jews of color make up by some statistics as much as 20% of the American Jewish population, and what’s more is that there are Jewish professionals who are Jews of color or Jews from non-exclusively Ashkenazi backgrounds, so there are people out there. Reach out. I’ve found that in reaching out to most folks, they’re really open to sharing their time and sharing their experience and being a resource.

Andrew: Finally, I have to ask you, since you appeared in the “Saturday Night Seder” video, what kind of response have you received personally? Obviously you’re not leaving your apartment and and seeing people and being recognized on the street, but I imagine you’ve gotten quite a few messages.

Kendell: Yeah, it’s really strange because as someone who is training to be a rabbi—and sure, I am also a creative, and a theater maker and very committed to that as well—but as someone who is training to be a rabbi, you don’t expect for people to be noticing you or reaching out. But it’s been really nice to receive little messages from friends and colleagues and acquaintances. Sometimes people reach out and it’s weird, so if I’m experiencing this I can only imagine what the actual stars—the gdolim—from the Seder, what their experiences have been throughout their careers as public figures and being in the entertainment business.

Andrew: It’s been a pleasure speaking with you Kendall, and we wish you moadim l’simcha and be safe. If you’d like to learn more about Be’chol Lashon and our Passover resources, please visit Again Kendall, thank you so much.

Kendell: Thank you so much. Moadim l’simcha, and thanks for taking the time today.

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