S.F. professionals mark Simchat Torah in the heavens

The briefcases strewn about the floor, empty coffee cups stained with lipstick and plates of half-eaten croissants on the 52nd floor of San Francisco's Bank of America Building showed signs of an early morning power breakfast.

Yet the 30 professionals who gathered there Monday did not come for business. Among the clouds and overlooking the Bay and Golden Gate Bridges, these dress-for-success Jews passed up the Stairmaster and the snooze button to mark the end of one Torah reading and the beginning of another.

In celebration of Simchat Torah, Rabbis Stephen Pearce and Helen Cohn of San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El led an hour-long service sponsored by Gesher, the temple's business and professional organization.

The rabbis explained each bit of symbolism, translated each Hebrew word, as their bodies cast shadows on the walls — their forms illuminated by early morning sun breaking through the fog. They asked the congregation to "savor the moment."

"Don't rush," Pearce said as he instructed participants to pass two Torahs around the room. "Hold onto it. This is the law lovingly passed from generation to generation. We do this symbolically by handing it to one another."

Some closed their eyes, others swayed lightly as they cradled the scrolls covered in intricate needlework. Pearce broke the peaceful silence only when both Torahs were returned to him and Cohen.

"I love this moment," he said smiling, gazing out the window at the sun bouncing off the choppy waves of the San Francisco Bay. "In the rush of the work day, it's a moment we don't have to do anything."

Many nodded in agreement.

"It's one hour of your life," said financial consultant Gadi Meir, 33, of the service. "I love the image of the sun dancing on the water and the rush of the city beneath us. It resonates. We charge through the day. We don't take 10 seconds out to reflect on anything. So when somebody stops and for 15 seconds helps you listen to the silence, well, it centers you."

Meir, like many of the early morning worshippers, is not a member of Congregation Emanu-El or Gesher. The service was open to the community. And, like many, he wouldn't ordinarily go to synagogue on Simchat Torah.

Like most, he simply doesn't have the time, he said.

Knowing most young professionals have wide interests and a tight schedule, Gesher's leadership brought worship to their territory — the financial district.

"Outreach," explained Emanu-El executive director Gary Cohen. "Most temples don't service Jews right out of college. We don't see them [after high school] again until they have a family."

Gesher formed one year ago in hopes of bridging that gap. Last year's Simchat Torah service kicked off a year of breakfast and early evening study sessions and lectures about both religious and secular topics.

But most on the mailing list of 100 expressed interest in more Jewish-oriented programs.

"It's a pleasure to be here with other professionals but I'm here for the spirituality, not to mention the view," said Marsha Felton, a marketing consultant living and working in San Francisco's Marina district.

Marcia Ruben, a consultant working south of Market, added, "We all work such long hours. It's tough to make connections in the Jewish community. I work downtown. I'm busy. I couldn't get to synagogue last night. And this is so convenient."

As promised, the service concluded at 8:30 a.m. "So everyone can be at work by nine," Pearce said.

Yet no one seemed in much of a hurry. They exchanged business cards, enjoyed another cup of coffee. Perhaps they were thinking of the sun and the water. And of Torah.