Rabbi slams S.F. at unusual memorial for homeless

Rabbi Alan Lew stood before the gravemarkers of 169 people Monday morning and condemned a policy of callousness in San Francisco that he said cut short many lives.

Lined in neat rows in United Nation's Plaza and facing San Francisco City Hall as part of a poignant, three-day installation, the gravestones were fabricated from cardboard.

But the people they commemorated were real: Homeless men, women and children — some less than a year old — who died on the streets of the city last year.

More than 300 gathered on brilliant, diamond-cold morning to hear Lew's comments, which began three days of poignant ceremonies. The event was sponsored by Religious Witness with Homeless People.

Lew, spiritual leader of Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom of San Francisco, called on city officials to spend a large part of a $90 million surplus on housing, mental health services and drug and alcohol rehabilitation.

"This is such a catastrophe," Lew said from the steps of City Hall. "First we had Matrix, then we had shmatrix, then we took their shopping carts away, now we are looking at 169 deaths on the streets. Every human being bears the image of God. To let life just die on the streets like this is a very serious violation of Jewish law."

Others in the Conservative Jewish community, including many congregants, agreed strongly enough to participate in the event.

Ben Bien-Kahn, a teen artist who is a member of Lew's congregation, helped craft the gravestones. Linda Hirschorn, cantor of the Conservative Temple Beth Sholom in San Leandro, and her Vocolot ensemble sang.

Buddhist clergy rang bells and Muslim followers chanted during a somber procession.

"We've got dot-com millionaires choking the streets, and the gap between the rich and the poor widening drastically," Lew said. "It's a complete perversion of Jewish values."

Lew, a longtime activist for the homeless, writes and speaks frequently on their behalf and has been highly critical of the city's policies.

He was arrested with 47 others last April in a demonstration at San Francisco City Hall condemning Mayor Willie Brown for excluding the homeless from the future plans for the Presidio.

The mayor had not seen the exhibit, according to Brown spokesman Ron Vinson.

"He hasn't commented on it at all," Vinson said, adding, "What those people did is totally illegal. They didn't even have a permit."

Meanwhile, Lew said he believed the figure of 169 deaths may be too low.

"Who knows how many have died in culverts, under freeway overpasses, whose bodies have not been identified?" he said.

Supervisor Mark Leno joined Lew on the steps Monday morning and called on the city "to open our hearts and doors."

Lew urged urged city officials to chart a new course. He noted that many are employed full-time in San Francisco but cannot afford housing.

Lew blew the shofar as other clergy read accounts of the deaths of each person memorialized in the installation.

The rabbi returned the following day alone, walking amidst the markers, reading the names and ages of the deceased.

"Only a handful were over 50," he said. "There was a 4-month-old baby, a 39-day-old baby. This is the most direct conflict with Jewish law. These deaths are 100 percent preventable."

Religious Witness once enjoyed a working relationship with Brown. But the group broke with the mayor last April, when he introduced a resolution prohibiting panhandling or resting on median strips.

Some members said they hoped to meet with the mayor in the coming days, however.

"The mayor already meets" with Sister Bernie Galvan of Religious Witness "quite regularly," Vinson said. "I don't know of any meeting this week. But all they want to talk about is making Whery Housing at the Presidio available to the homeless, and we don't have any jurisdiction over that."

He added that "the mayor is totally committed to affordable housing."

The installation remained in place Tuesday and Wednesday. Volunteers read aloud the names of the dead while visitors walked throughout the grounds.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.