Young rabbi rejuvenates S.F.s oldest Orthodox shul

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

"We love saying we're the oldest Orthodox synagogue in San Francisco with the youngest rabbi," says Dr. Phillipa Newfield, president of Congregation Chevra Thilim.

The synagogue, which has been celebrating its 110th anniversary, has experienced tremendous growth and renewal since Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi has taken the bimah.

Just six years ago, the congregation totaled about 70 families of a primarily older demographic. "It was certainly very intimate on Saturday mornings in those days," said Newfield. "Most of the members then were the people who had been there for 40 years."

Chevra Thilim now boasts about 130 families.

Many have seen Zarchi, 28, and his wife, Chani, 25, as responsible for the recent successes, but the Lubavitch rabbi is the first to point out that he is not the sole cause.

"Without the members who kept the congregation before me, there would have been nothing," he said. "Without [the older congregants'] support I could not have done what I did."

Now, Chevra Thilim has had a remarkable infusion of younger members. In the early days, there was a large disparity between the older congregants and younger couples. "The challenge at the time was to recognize the trials of the situation and still service all aspects of the community," said Zarchi.

Lydia Milrod has been a member of the congregation since the mid-'50s. "My whole adult life has been at that shul," she said. Now in her 80s, Milrod is still volunteering as the synagogue's treasurer.

"There's a lot of fluctuation, we are building slow but it's happening," she said.

The synagogue began attracting other members who filled in the generation gap. Newfield was one of those members. "Today when I look at the ages, it's much more balanced," said Zarchi.

"We're as close to the people who are 86 as the people who are 16," said Newfield, who describes herself as middle-aged.

"The feeling of family is still the same, when someone doesn't come to services we wonder why because we know them," said Milrod.

Newfield personifies the new attitude of the old congregation. The first female president in the organization's long tradition, she is a relatively new member who joined just a few months after Zarchi arrived.

Newfield and her husband were attracted by the rabbi's commitment to teaching within the community. "He's a person who will enlarge anyone's Jewish background — the perfect mix of scholarship and secularism."

Zarchi started at the synagogue as a result of a fortuitous meeting with long-time congregant Charles Lewin at a bar mitzvah. "They needed a cantor at the High Holidays. One thing led to another — I ended up staying. I thought, 'If I'm going to get my feet wet, well, now's the time.'

"It was good because I was still single," he added.

After leading Chevra Thilim for two years, Zarchi married Chani. To the congregation, the two perfectly complement each other. The Zarchis now have a 1-year-old son, Yaakov Meir.

"Mrs. Zarchi has been just as responsible for our success; she has been an integral member of the community," said Newfield. "She is just as willing to help out and teach within the community as her husband."

For the rabbi, one of the biggest challenges of the past six years has been his own success at helping people rediscover their faith.

"We've had a lot of members become part of the congregation, become more connected, get married and become more committed to their faith," he said. "It reaches a point where they're always beckoned by Los Angeles or Israel because there's a large community there."

That has created a conflict for Zarchi because in his mind the gauge of success is how many people are inspired to study Torah.

"There's a dearth of kosher restaurants in San Francisco, and I encourage them to continue onward, and I am also very close to those who have gone to L.A.," he said. "But because of this we've always felt like we're swimming upstream."

Milrod feels similarly. "People today are much more transient, they just move so much more — it's a generational difference," she said.

"Also, more people are working, both men and women, and you lose that middle ground between young people who work and old people who cannot volunteer. Those were the people who used to volunteer and keep things running."

In the future Zarchi would like a sense of community to develop beyond the borders of congregations, something he sees as incredibly important in the current geopolitical situation.

"We need to show a united front in this case, we need to show that we're not [fragmented]," he said.

To achieve this abstract goal, Zarchi has come up with some concrete projects, such as the creation of an eruv, a wire that circles a Jewish community and allows observant Jews to carry items within it or push baby strollers on Shabbat.

"The idea is that you create a community sense with this, and you hope it prevails," he said.