Shaar Zahav re-opening turns into S.F. block party

In the company of Christian and ex-Soviet neighbors, extended families, cooing couples and one klezmer band, San Francisco's Congregation Sha'ar Zahav last month opened its doors to the public.

The remodeled building at the corner of Dolores and 16th Street took in a full house of visitors during its weekend dedication celebration.

The Dec. 18 to 20 event culminated more than a year of construction during which the predominantly gay and lesbian Reform congregation held services at a nearby German Lutheran church.

In the cinnamon-colored sanctuary, lay leaders of Sha'ar Zahav presented to members of the Lutheran church a plaque of gratitude for their hospitality.

Synagogue administrators said they were at first wary of renting space from the mostly German-born Lutheran congregants, some of whom lived in Germany during World War II.

But the Germans welcomed the Jews with open arms, homemade cookies and a rental extension when the synagogue construction ran into overtime.

At the ceremony, Sha'ar Zahav members gave a standing ovation to the church representatives.

After receiving the plaque from synagogue members, Ursula Younger said, "Thank you on behalf of St. Matthews. God bless you all."

The weekend began with services and a Chanukah candlelighting Friday, Dec. 19. Some 400 worshippers and visitors attended the spiritually charged gathering.

More than 500 showed up the following night for the official dedication ceremony and havdallah service of the congregation, which has 420 member households. Open house guests included Catholic, Presbyterian and Lutheran neighbors as well as ex-Soviet seniors who live in nearby retirement complexes. Sha'ar Zahav congregants fashioned a Russian siddur to make the emigres feel at home.

The Rev. Jim Mitulski of the predominantly gay Metropolitan Community Church told the crowd Friday that the Mission District synagogue effectively expands the Castro. Sha'ar Zahav, he said, now marks the eastern outpost of the heavily gay neighborhood, which lies a few blocks away.

Formalities included the passing of the Torah from those who were responsible for the acquisition of Sha'ar Zahav's previous building on Danvers Street to those who helped secure the new building, a former mortuary. Al Baum, the first openly gay board member of the Jewish Community Federation, delivered a keynote talk.

After hanging the mezuzah, klezmer began. Celebrants broke in the new floor with dancing into the wee hours of the night. It was the first time in years that the entire congregation fit under the same roof.

But there was much more than elbow room to celebrate, according to Sha'ar Zahav's Rabbi Jane Litman.

The open house also marked Litman's first year with the synagogue and a time of growth for the community, she said.

Membership during the year increased by some 10 percent, partly due to a "gayby boom" among congregants, noted Litman.

"We are averaging about 2-1/2 new babies a month," she said.

The synagogue's religious school already accommodates about 150 children, and planners took note of the recent surge as they penciled in plans for a handful of multipurpose rooms and a social hall.

While the synagogue's exterior is not as distinctive, the interior reveals an airy, haimish warmth. From its wooden wainscot and warm hues to the stained glass and abundance of natural light, the second-floor sanctuary is worth the four-flight climb (or elevator ride if one prefers).

San Francisco architect John Goldman scrapped most of the prior floor plan to fashion the new one. His design revisits an older architectural style that harks back to the wooden synagogues of Eastern Europe with the bimah at the center of the U-shaped pews.

"We are used to seeing the backs of people's heads [during services], which is not very involved," Goldman said. But "most of our history encourages community participation in the service. The rabbi [traditionally] does not lead the service; that is a Reform idea."

Goldman's U-arranged pews face the ark and also Jerusalem to the east. Indigo stained-glass adorns the doors of the ark. Above it, a modern abstract mural of stained glass by artists Lucinda Shaw and Jay Schlossberg-Cohen decorates a bank of windows. A window-lined cupola on the roof marks the center of the sanctuary, just above the bimah.

Also noticeable from the synagogue's exterior is the protruding bay that houses the ark. Goldman said the telltale bulge is what distinguishes it from the neighborhood's churches.

"We no longer need to hide [the Torah]. Assimilation is about hiding. We don't have to do that anymore. We can freely express ourselves as Jews," he said. With the new synagogue, "Why not say, `Hey, we're Jews. We're proud.' "

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.