Joy and sadness mark Shaar Zahavs 25th anniversary

The Dolores Street synagogue — itself a triumph of the congregation, which is 80 percent gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender — was awash in the joy at having so many children present and the sorrow of commemorating the loss of more than 100 members, who died mostly from AIDS.

The service began with the debut performance of Sha'ar Zahav's Junior-Junior Choir as they led the congregation in "Hinei Ma Tov" and "Shabbat Shalom."

The gathering was also the commencement of the First Annual Congregational Advance, so named because as service leader Nicole Bloom told Friday's attendees, "Sha'ar Zahav looks forward and does not retreat." The Advance is intended to address the future of the congregation and, among other things, the steady growth they have witnessed during the last quarter-century.

"When we were 100 people," beamed former President David Stein, "we struggled with the notion of growing our numbers, becoming 300 or 400 members. Now that we are about 400, we have to ask ourselves the question of how much more we want to grow."

Stein and Allan Gold, president of Sha'ar Zahav from 1991 to 1993, acknowledge there are some issues to tackle but prefer to bask in the fun they have had over the years. "I look around and see a few people that I have dated over the past 25 years," continued Stein, "and we are all still great friends. This place has brought us all together, made us so close."

Sha'ar Zahav came together for the first time in 1977 under the direction of Daniel Chesir, Shamir Durst and Bernard Pechter. Difficulties ranged far and wide, including finding a regular place to meet, local publishers unwilling to accept advertisement for Sha'ar Zahav services and a lack of acceptance from San Francisco and Jewish organizations.

"We knew that above everything else, we wanted to create an inclusive Jewish community," said Paul Cohen, another past president, "but that was difficult amidst a lack of acceptance from so many organizations." The first big break for Sha'ar Zahav came in 1979 when they talked their way into regular Friday services at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. "It was the first time the JCC had ever opened their doors at night," continued Cohen, "and that gave us the momentum and outreach we needed."

During the next five years Sha'ar Zahav made tremendous strides: being accepted into the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. The UAHC, which, according to Cohen was initially reluctant to accept Sha'ar Zahav because of the congregation's sexual orientation, has recently elected Chesir as president of their regional chapter. He will be inaugurated early next year.

"I worried every Friday night," Chesir said laughing as he told of his insistence on having a hands-on role in all of the congregation's earliest services. "It was not because I thought we would not have a membership base. I was concerned with us being a viable organization. Finally, after 18 months, I let myself miss a Shabbat service if I had to."

Gold and Stein joke that Chesir "worried until about 1986," but are more serious when talking about Sha'ar Zahav's struggles in the early '80s. "We were trying to buy and move into our first synagogue," started Gold. "At the same time we were hiring a new rabbi. The congregation had grown and there were differing viewpoints on what type of a rabbi we wanted all amidst the struggle in trying to pay for the Danvers Street building." Sha'ar Zahav accomplished the latter by, among other things, auctioning off a Rolls Royce.

Cohen is proud to admit that "we have always been a Jewish community first and GLBT second. We take our Judaism very seriously."

While Judaism does reign supreme, Sha'ar Zahav has struggled more than most inside and outside the sanctuary, which has promoted a familial atmosphere.

Lining the back of the synagogue are several plaques, which commemorate the loss of more than 120 congregants. "We thought we would be burying certain people 20 or 30 years from now," said David Stein. "AIDS decimated the congregation, but it has brought us closer than ever before."

Always optimistic, Sha'ar Zahav fights sorrow over HIV and AIDS with the joy in the number of children present at services and attending Kadimah, the children's Hebrew school just downstairs from the sanctuary. "Children are the biggest change for the congregation," beams current President Lisa Katz as she picks up her daughter. "In some ways, children and the AIDS epidemic played off of one another."