How a rabbi was inspired by a Methodist minister in S.F.

On Sunday I will be installed as rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid. When asked a while back by Beverlee Hassid, the chairperson of the event, whom I would like as the keynote speaker, I asked for the Rev. Cecil Williams of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church.

I first met Cecil in 1985. A close friend of mine studying at San Francisco State University had invited me for a weekend to the city I had only known before from the perspective of Fisherman's Wharf and the Golden Gate Bridge. Though my friend, too, was Jewish, she was eager to take me to San Francisco's Glide on a Sunday morning.

The service was electric. Joy and excitement and harmony filled the air, and when it concluded, the robust minister gave everyone who was willing, a warm hug at the door. Glide was a turn-on, even then.

Now, nearly 18 years later, I find myself back in San Francisco, this time assuming the pulpit of what I am told was the first Conservative synagogue in San Francisco, but now is the smallest.

In the 1960s and '70s Ner Tamid reached its pinnacle. Rabbi William Dalin was then its spiritual leader, while simultaneously serving as the local head of the Jewish Welfare Board. The congregation then had several hundred students in its Hebrew school, and photos of the confirmation classes from those years attest to a thriving institution.

But times and demography changed the Sunset district, where the synagogue is located. As the Jewish children reached adulthood and started families of their own, most moved out of the city, while their parents stayed behind. Fewer and fewer b'nai mitzvah celebrations were held, and ultimately even weddings became a thing of the past.

Ner Tamid began to make due with part-time rabbis, and ultimately became the beneficiary of the kindness of Rabbi Ted Feldman of Oakland, who came out twice a month on Shabbat morning to preach a sermon. I believe that were it not for the dedication of some stalwart leaders and the talent and commitment of its chazzan, a man with a marvelous voice who grew up in this shul and met his wife here when they were both children, Ner Tamid might not have survived.

But it did. And last year its leadership took a bold step and launched a final search for its own rabbi.

I came, after being named emeritus and stepping down from my pulpit in the posh La Jolla suburb of San Diego, because I was impressed with the efforts of the committee and because I saw the possibility of creating a compelling and creative service without the typical opposition and politics. And Cecil Williams is my role model.

Forty years ago, he, an African-American, assumed the pulpit of a Southern Methodist church downtown in the Tenderloin. There were barely 50 members, and I suspect that they were not "families" but individuals. Today, the early Sunday service is filled to capacity, and there's a line around the block for the second service — accommodating a crowd of at least 1,000. Often, people need to be accommodated in an adjacent hall with a TV monitor.

What is it that catapulted Glide to such success? Why is it known throughout the Christian world, at least in this country? Why have some 10,000 people signed up as members to support Glide?

Our tradition says that the world stands on three things: study, worship and deeds of lovingkindness. Glide stands on three principles as well: total acceptance of everyone who crosses its threshold, a compelling and meaningful service, and an unequivocal commitment to tikkun olam, healing the world. Glide serves three meals a day to the homeless, no questions asked. It feeds, clothes and houses those eager to move into mainstream society, and conducts workshops to help people re-enter the job market.

While some of these programs are found elsewhere, I doubt if the Glide service can be found anywhere else. A five-piece amplified rock/jazz band supports the congregation in singing nondenominational hymns and gospel. A volunteer choir of about 70 leads the singing, with incredible soloists stepping out front to grab the hearts and souls of the entire crowd. And a sermon with the same lesson week after week — the lesson chanted in synagogues every Yom Kippur afternoon — God wants our deeds, our acts of lovingkindness, much more than our sacrifices and offerings.

Cecil Williams is on a mission: to better the lot of the underclass. He is focused on his vision of inspiring countless people, to make his dream of a loving and helpful community come true. And in 40 years he has exceeded beyond all expectations, perhaps even his own.

My vision at Ner Tamid is not the same as his. Ner Tamid is not a church, and we were not schooled in life's values according to the Gospel. My vision emphasizes Jewish people's needs — first for spirituality, for an opportunity to be moved and inspired at services, and so I've brought in several outstanding musicians from the neighboring Conservatory of Music.

My vision is that we want, or should want, to appreciate our people's past so that we remain deserving of the title "People of the Book." My vision is to resume our role in communal concerns, especially on behalf of a beleaguered Israel. And we need to build a caring and concerned community until we all feel as if we belong to one large chavurah.

I asked to invite Cecil Williams because I want to remain inspired by his tenacity and his personal commitment, because he did for an old Southern Methodist church what I would like to do for an old established synagogue. I invited him because he has survived boards and committees and "shul" politics, by keeping his eyes fixated on his goals. And I'd like to do the same for Ner Tamid.

San Francisco is a truly great city, probably the greatest in the world. I believe that one little synagogue in the Sunset can help keep it that way.