Shaar Zahav co-founder Bernard Pechter dies at 63

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Bernard Pechter, who co-founded San Francisco's first gay-oriented synagogue, died Sept. 5 after a fall in his San Francisco apartment. He was 63.

He had been in failing health in recent years.

Pechter started the congregation in 1977 with two others, bringing together a core group of about 40 that met in the basement of a Castro District church.

When the politically progressive congregation moved into its latest home 20 years later, it had grown to more than 400 households and broadened its outreach to serve a wider community.

"He was an organizer, a man of action," said Daniel Chesir, an attorney who served as Sha'ar Zahav's first spiritual leader. "Our talents complemented each other. But he really nurtured us. We've lost a real link with our founding."

Holding the Torah, two years ago Pechter and Chesir led Sha'ar Zahav members dancing in the streets from the congregation's former site to its elegant new quarters in the Mission District.

"He was very devoted to both the Jewish community and the gay community, and this was the first time the two came together for a lot of us," said Sha'ar Zahav administrative assistant Melanie Kushnir. "He was very motivated."

But he was also active in political and theater circles.

"He had about 1,500 groups of friends," said executor and longtime friend Sharon Herman, whose husband attended the University of Illinois with Pechter. "We were the quiet constants. This is a man who was really loved." Among those friends were such luminaries as Broadway producer Harold Prince, composer-songwriter Stephen Sondheim, choreographer Michael Smuin and San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen. Pechter was a frequent contributor to Caen's column.

Pechter majored in Romance languages at the University of Illinois, and traveled around Europe extensively before settling into a 25-year career as a stockbroker. He moved to San Francisco in 1959.

He let it be known that he was gay in the early 1970s, and plunged into a feast of projects, founding San Francisco's Theatre Rhinoceros, which took on plays with gay themes, and raising money for the AIDS Foundation.

"He was always able to get tickets to everything anywhere in the world — New York, London," Herman said. "He would then give them to people if they would pay a little something to the AIDS Foundation. He raised a lot of money that way."

For Ronnie Caplane of Piedmont, who met Pechter when she went looking for theater tickets for her daughter's 16th birthday, "it was like a double mitzvah."

Her family celebrated with "Phantom of the Opera" in San Francisco and then again in London, where they also saw "Sunset Boulevard." "He'd become instrumental in major life things for people," she said.

An opera aficionado, he was also a lover of literature and maintained a massive personal library. Friends describe him as an irresistible raconteur.

A native of Chicago, Pechter was born into an Orthodox family. He remained close to his brother Marvin, who lives in Chicago with his wife, Norma. But Bernard strayed from the Orthodox faith.

"That's where he had his inner conflicts," Herman said.

Caplane said Pechter often regaled friends with tales of his childhood — such as when, as a star yeshiva pupil, he discovered cheeseburgers.

"He would cross the borders from the Orthodox neighborhood, get a cheeseburger, then cross the border again and go to yeshiva, until the rabbi caught him and called his parents. He said the dybbuk made him do it, and his father said, 'Dybbuk, shmybbuk, the kid's a chazzer [pig],'" he said.

But as Pechter's health failed, his raconteur personality fell away, leaving a person who sought deeper personal connections, friends say.

"His spiral down did something special for him, too," Herman said. "It got him to intimately understand the beauty of people. Before, he'd been a young person out there, holding court, working with large groups of people…accomplishing so very much with all his testosterone. But toward the end, he developed a very special sensitivity that brought him full circle."

In addition to his brother and sister-in-law, Pechter is survived by a cousin in France, a cousin in Los Angeles, and numerous nieces and nephews.

Memorial contributions may be sent to Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, 290 Dolores St., S.F., CA 94103, or Project Open Hand, 730 Polk St., S.F., CA 94109.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.