Melodic march inaugurates Shaar Zahavs new synagogue

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Accompanied by members of the San Francisco Police Department, twisting lines of hora dancers and the city's only gay, lesbian and bisexual klezmer house band, Congregation Sha'ar Zahav inaugurated its new synagogue.

The congregation held a march on Wednesday night, Oct. 22, from its old location on Danvers Street in San Francisco's upper Castro to its new home on the corner of 16th and Dolores.

The synagogue, whose congregants run the gamut of age, gender and sexual orientation, cited burgeoning membership as the main impetus for the move.

According to Rabbi Jane Litman, membership has grown to more than 500 members in the 20 years since the synagogue was founded. That increase, she explained, is largely due to families growing larger. Nearly one-fifth of the synagogue's congregants, Litman said, are children.

She said the new location, a former funeral parlor, will be not only much larger but also fully wheelchair accessible, in contrast to the aged Victorian that served as the congregation's previous home.

Prior to the march, the congregation held its Simchat Torah celebration. Congregants took turns reading from the Torah, and gave thanks for many things, including Israeli Independence Day and Gay Freedom Day. Youngsters honed their artistic talents with an assortment of Magic Markers and crayons.

Lou Hirschmann, who joined the synagogue two months ago, said Sha'ar Zahav's "family environment" was unlike anything he had ever experienced.

"I'd attended what I would call "corporate Judaism synagogues," Hirschmann said. "They were very traditional and a little cold.

"As a gay man, this congregation has been a real eye-opener," he said. "The family feeling just blows my socks off."

Alison Austin, who has been a member of Sha'ar Zahav for more than three years, watched her girlfriend dancing with the Torah on the way to the new synagogue.

"As a gay woman, and as someone who cares about children, Sha'ar Zahav feels like coming home," Austin said. "Everyone needs an image of themselves, and when I look around this congregation, I see my values and beliefs reflected."

The march, which began near the crest of the 18th Street hill and included jangling tambourines, flapping miniature Torahs and Israeli folk-song standards, drew the attention of many bystanders.

Riders on the 33 Stanyan bus craned their necks out of windows to see what the commotion was about. Patrons in bars the marchers passed, such as the Pendulum and the Edge, peered quizzically from barstools or waved their drinks in appreciation.

Onlookers Stuart Sawyer and Pedro Ayala said they appreciated the congregants' enthusiasm.

"I don't know what's being celebrated, but I'm sure it's got something to do with Yom Kippur," Sawyer said. "It's definitely not something you'd see in Alabama."

"More and more gay men and women are returning to their spiritual roots," Ayala added. "I think it's great."

When the congregants reached the new synagogue, they were greeted with platters of food, hanging balloons and the brassy sounds of the klezmer band Gay Iz Mir.

Upstairs, Eloise Magenheim was leading an all-volunteer construction crew in remodeling the congregation's new sanctuary, which, in its previous incarnation, had been a sales room for coffins.

Magenheim, who needs construction volunteers the next three Sundays, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., said the demolition process will be a "bring your own hammer, bagels provided" affair.

In what will be the synagogue's future oneg Shabbat room, Paul Cohen, past president of Sha'ar Zahav, talked with Hirschmann while dancers twirled by.

"Judaism is not a religion of aloneness," Cohen said. "In the tradition of the shadchan [matchmaker], Jewish legacy is expressed through couples and through families, whether they be families of origin or families of choice."

Hirschmann watched the congregants celebrate and nodded his approval.

"Not only that," he said. "Some of the guys are awfully cute."