Torah helps launch weekday services in downtown S.F.

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With the donation of a new Torah, Chabad of S.F. will institute downtown San Francisco's first weekday morning Orthodox services in five years, enabling the group to serve visitors as well as businesspeople seeking a daily sunrise minyan.

Monday's service honoring the new Torah drew visiting rabbis from as far away as New York City. Celebrants expressed delight as they saw the $40,000 Torah and the two silver crowns that adorn it.

The Torah was donated by Jacob Schechter, owner of three Chinatown emporiums specializing in art, statuary, and jade and ivory products, and his brother Manny. In keeping with halachah, the Schechters close their stores on Friday nights, Saturdays and on Jewish holidays.

"Jacob Schechter was the first to close his store on the Sabbath, the busiest day of the week for the retail businessman," said Chabad of S.F. Rabbi Yosef Langer.

Halachah demands that Monday and Thursday Shacharit services require a reading from the Torah, according to Langer. Since 1990, Orthodox Shabbat and holiday morning and evening services have been held downtown at Congregation Keneseth Israel on Sutter Street. But after the High Holy Days, weekday Orthodox morning services will take place at Chabad, which is at 468 Bush Street, near the gate of Chinatown and close to the Financial District.

Langer said the presence of the Torah now allows the Chabad center to serve tourists, conventioneers and visiting businesspeople as well as those who work downtown. He also hopes to serve the approximately 150 Israelis who work in the shops of Chinatown, Powell Street, Market Street and Fisherman's Wharf.

He also anticipates bagel breakfasts, lunch-and-learn programs, beginning prayer and alef-beit classes, and a late-Saturday-evening music cafe featuring musical performances by Langer, who calls himself "the Grateful Yid."

One year ago, Jacob and Manny Schechter decided to have a Torah inscribed in honor of their parents, who live in Tel Aviv. They commissioned a renowned Jerusalem scribe. When the Torah was finished, a computer scanner was used to check whether any Hebrew letters touched each other or were missing, chipped or cracked. If so, the whole Torah would be unfit for use.

Besides striving for mechanical perfection, "a scribe is expected to immerse himself in the mikveh and to possess holy thoughts while writing the Torah," Langer said.

When complete, the handcrafted Torah was sent to Tel Aviv, where Schechter's parents could see it. Then it was sent to Chabad.

The Schechters "have done so much to bring Jewish life to the downtown community," said Langer, who in an effort to host downtown services some years ago used to borrow a Torah from various sources, load it into his car and drive around the city gathering Jews willing to join a minyan.

The Schechter brothers, Langer added, "support Chabad, are traditional Jews and have been examples to others that are often smothered in the throngs of the business community."

Rabbi Herschel Yolles, the head of the Samborer Chassidim and a direct descendant of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, attended Monday's service. He honored both the new Torah and the Schechter brothers.

Aged Russian immigrants, teenage boys and middle-aged men donned tefillin, and Langer and Schechter read from the Torah. Then everyone danced around the bimah, with Yolles in front, embracing the new Torah in his arms.

"It was one of [the Schechters'] hopes that we start a regular morning minyan," Langer said.