Flexible Orthodoxy keeps 50-year-old shul healthy

Rabbi Jacob Traub descends the staircase of Adath Israel with all the alacrity of the major-league second baseman he once aspired to be. When he reaches the bottom of the staircase, he balances precariously on one foot.

With one hand holding the smoldering remnants of an ever-present Tareyton, and the other hand adjusting a sliding yarmulke, the Orthodox rabbi shouts for some missing keys.

The keys come flying down the hallway. Just as they appear to be outside Traub's grasp, he snags them with a quick cat-like motion.

"It's all about balance," said Traub in his gravelly East Coast baritone. "It's similar to Judaism.

"Traditions need to be examined," Traub continued, exhaling a stream of smoke, "but the guts and kishkes of Judaism aren't going to be affected by all the issues du jour — whatever they may be."

Similarly, as Traub nears his 35th year with the Orthodox San Francisco synagogue that is celebrating its 50th anniversary, he believes the shul's hallmarks incorporate the examining — but not scrapping — of tradition.

"Adath Israel espouses a flexible Orthodoxy, with its roots firmly planted in tradition."

Throughout the year, the Sunset District congregation will host a variety of events to commemorate the anniversary, including a dinner and a celebration in honor of the planned renovation of the sanctuary. The congregation is raising $500,000 to pay for exterior and interior renovations, and to hire a full-time cantor and youth education coordinator.

Founded in 1949, Adath Israel originally was housed in a storefront on Noriega Street. It drew its core membership of about 30 people from residents of the heavily Jewish Fillmore area, as well as European immigrants who survived the Holocaust.

One year later, the congregants moved the shul to a house on Lawton Street, where it remained until 1960, when it moved to its current location at the corner of 26th Avenue and Noriega Street. Quite a few of the congregations 250 households have been with the shul since its inception.

"Home cooking," said Robert Sosnick, the congregation's president and co-owner of kosher food distributor J. Sosnick and Son. "That's what comes to mind when I think about Adath Israel."

Sosnick, who was a kid when he became one of Adath Israel's charter members, said he doesn't think any other San Francisco synagogue can match the shul's sense of education, purpose and community.

According to Sosnick, the shul offers consistently well-attended daily minyan services, as well as vigorous and compelling weekly Talmud discussions.

Sosnick also mentioned Adath Israel's fervent devotion to the state of Israel, saying that the shul, despite its relatively small size, continues to be a big seller of Israel Bonds.

Adath Israel's sense of continuity is also reflected in its reverence for the past: The congregation is comprised of a high percentage of Holocaust survivors, one of the highest percentages among Bay Area synagogues, in fact.

This is evidenced by a plaque contained in the "Torah of Remembrance" near the entry to the sanctuary. It is engraved with "in gratitude to God for all the Adath Israel members who have survived the Holocaust and have become living memories."

"Shuls like this one are important," said Gabriel Piotrkowski, a survivor of Auschwitz. "I'll tell you why," he continued in heavily accented English, "because the prayers and services go back to the shtetls in Eastern Europe, back to the traditions of our fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers."

Piotrkowski, a synagogue member for almost 30 years, cites Adath Israel's daily minyans as a large part of the shul's haimish environment.

"If we have a minyan, and somebody is missing, we want to know why," he said. "If they're sick, we want to be able to visit them. That's how it should be in a shul."

But Piotrkowksi noted a flip side to the shul's close-knit core of Holocaust survivors.

"We're old now. We will only be able to tell our stories about the Shoah and the Old Country for so many years…We don't have too many young people here. And that's a problem."

Ava Brand, a newlywed when she became a congregant in 1980, concurred that the lack of younger membership is problematic.

"The Sunset District is home to some of the oldest residents in the city," said Brand. "And since most of our shul members are shomer Shabbat, and need to walk to Sabbath services, it creates a conflict.

"Another issue," Brand continued, "is that young couples are being priced out of living in the city."

Yet, Brand leaves room for optimism. Ironically, the shifting mores of the time will spur an increase in the shul's membership, Brand contends, even as it drives up real estate prices

"All these dot-commers are working 80 hours a week, and are wedded to their jobs," she said. "Eventually they're going to get to a place where they need more spiritual sustenance.

"And if people are interested in a no-frills, honest approach to Judaism, then Adath Israel is the place they'll go."