Slain S.F. supe Harvey Milk eulogized at Shaar Zahav

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In the early 1970s, Sharyn Saslafsky, a member of San Francisco's Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, often strolled into Harvey Milk's camera store in the Castro to gab with him in Yiddish.

"We'd try to tell good, fun Yiddishkeit stories," she said. They impressed one another with their knowledge of the language.

Milk, who supporters dubbed "the Mayor of Castro," went on to become a San Francisco supervisor in 1977, becoming one of the first openly gay politicians in the country. He was assassinated on Nov. 27, 1978, along with Mayor George Moscone, by ex-Supervisor Dan White.

Last Friday, on the 20th yahrzeit of Milk's death, more than 400 people gathered at Congregation Sha'ar Zahav for a commemorative Shabbat. State Assemblywoman Carole Migden (D-S.F.), and San Francisco Supervisors Leslie Katz and Mark Leno, all members of the synagogue, read from the siddur and made short remarks.

U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-S.F.) and Supervisors Tom Ammiano and Sue Bierman also read from the prayerbook.

"It was a beautiful and remarkable service," Leno said later. "I think Harvey's message was simply to be who we are as we are , out and proud as gay and lesbian people, and self-loving."

Arriving in San Francisco in 1977 just in time to become a founding member of the congregation, Leno resigned from Sha'ar Zahav when its first rabbi, Allen Bennett, left to form another congregation.

Leno chose last Friday to announce he now wants to join again.

"I always felt very close to the congregation. It was such a powerful evening; I felt like I was coming home," he said.

Migden, a longtime member of the congregation, said she spoke to Milk only once, phoning him to ask his help in obtaining funding for a gay and lesbian clinic in the East Bay.

"As a Jew and an openly gay elected official," she said, "Harvey's work meant that I could step in some familiar footsteps on the winding road toward an understanding of lesbians and gays. He helped carve a niche that I and many other leaders have filled and expanded."

Others at the service also drew parallels between Milk's and Sha'ar Zahav's history.

Saslafsky recalled that Milk occasionally attended services at Sha'ar Zahav, which was then a new congregation with only a few members who considered themselves refugees from the Jewish community. After Milk was gunned down, many Jews gathered at the synagogue for a candlelight vigil.

On the evening of the service, an overflow crowd showed up to honor Milk's contribution to the gay and lesbian community.

"I could just picture Harvey walking [into the service] and giving me a big hug and saying, `Yes, it's been worth the struggle,'" Saslafsky said.

The service coincidentally became a housewarming as the first-ever Shabbat at the congregation's new, larger home on Dolores Street.

In her sermon, Sha'ar Zahav's Rabbi Jane Litman said that a yahrzeit helps to establish the collective memory of the community.

"A lot of our congregation members are too young to remember him," she said later. Her sermon spoke of "looking to the heroes of our community for moral guidance. Our social action fund is named after Harvey Milk. He is a bright star in our firmament."

Litman also read a message from Bennett, now at Alameda's Temple Israel, joking that "although Harvey was agnostic, had he lived he would have been a strong member" of Sha'ar Zahav.

Elva Smith, the mother of Harvey Milk's deceased partner Scott Smith, also read from the siddur.

After the service, the memorial turned into a tikkun leyl, an all-night study session.

"We thought since no one slept the night Harvey was murdered, we wanted to honor him" by studying without rest, Litman said.

In the late hours, the lights were left on in the synagogue as congregants listened to panelists speak of personal memories of Harvey Milk.

Rabbi Yoel Kahn, who left as Sha'ar Zahav's spiritual leader two years ago and now leads Stanford Hillel, also participated. Bob Kelley introduced the photo exhibit of Milk he curated at San Francisco's New Main Library. Kevin Schaub, executive director of the Harvey Milk Institute, which co-sponsored the event, also spoke, as did Jonathan Katz and Suzanne Loebl.

Finally, as the sun rose to warm the synagogue Saturday morning, those still left greeted it by reading from the Torah.

"A lot of people were crying. This is a big thing for us," Saslafsky said.

"Twenty years ago no one wanted us; we saw ourselves as a small, marginalized group. To now be in a beautiful building, and have a growing, young congregation is poignant and powerful."