Chabad aims to maintain family feel in new center

Rabbi Gedalia Potash prides himself on the homey feel of his San Francisco shul.

That's not surprising.

After all, for the past year now, Chabad of Noe Valley has operated completely out of the rabbi's dining room. And since starting the shul in July 2000, Potash has either led services and classes out of his own house or from a downstairs in-law apartment at a previous location.

"It's obviously a beautiful feeling, a mishpoche feeling," said Potash of the home-based congregation. But lately, it's been a crowded feeling, too.

As the father of two preschoolers with a third child expected any day, Potash, 27, is also the spiritual leader of a growing congregation that attracts 20 to 50 worshippers each Shabbat.

He recently decided it was time that everyone concerned had a little more breathing room.

To that end, Chabad has moved to a home of its own — an 800-square-foot storefront at 94 29th Street.

"We finally decided there was enough growth and enough of a need to have a separate space," said Potash, who was brought out from New York to start the congregation three years ago.

He held the shul's very first minyan at the Noe Valley bed and breakfast where he and his wife, Leah, and then baby daughter, Mushkie, were staying. Mushkie, now 3-1/2, has since been joined by a brother, Mendel, who turns 2 in September. The couple's third child is due this month.

With the congregation in its own place, "now we're focusing on filling up a house with kids," quipped the rabbi, whose family downsized from the house/shul on Elizabeth Street to an apartment after renting the storefront space.

Running a congregation out of his home "was really beautiful while it lasted," observed Potash. "I'm sure my wife almost agrees with what I'm saying."

After all, with a growing family, "there was a bit of a challenge for privacy."

In addition to Saturday morning services, the Potashes also host a regular Friday night dinner in their home and offer evening and afternoon classes four days a week.

"Sometimes we were really crammed in there," he said.

The new shul, the former site of a high-tech office, is accessible to the disabled, and has a small office and a restroom. The rabbi plans to install a library.

At the first service on May 10, "we had over 50 people," said an obviously pleased Potash.

Congregant Vicki Rosen is likewise happy with the shul's new digs. While "it's nice to be in someone's home," she said the storefront "gives us a little more breathing space and room to grow."

Rosen, a community coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund division, began attending Chabad about a year and a half ago after seeing an ad for High Holy Days services published in a Noe Valley newsletter.

Though reared in a Conservative household, "I was very moved by the nature of the service and the welcoming spirit there and decided to go on Shabbos." Rosen has been a regular congregant ever since.

The services are "presented very traditionally, which I found very beautiful," she said, "Yet, it was not oppressive. I was made to feel very welcome as was everyone."

As for the new location, "it's actually very exciting to have a larger space that will give the group flexibility," she said. "It's a very nice space and it's really easy to get to."

And no, Rosen isn't worried at all about losing the family feel of the young shul.

The congregation, she said, continues to be "filled with warmth and a good sense of humor.

"The feeling is there," she said. "The feeling comes from the people, not from the building."