After 80 years, Jewish Home’s synagogue gets a name

The prayerbooks are written in large text. Seating accommodates wheelchairs and walkers. Standing during prayers is optional. Congregants often interrupt services to ask questions or to request help in leaving the room.

For more than 80 years, San Francisco’s Jewish Home has had an on-site synagogue, designed to meet the unique needs of its 430 residents and their families, including weddings, b’nai mitzvah, memorials and even a baby-naming.

In July, the octogenarian synagogue received a name of its own — L’Dor Vador, “from generation to generation.”

“The sanctuary personifies the tradition of Judaism that we all love,” says Jim Davis, the Home’s president. “L’Dor Vador recognizes the range of ages of volunteers and visitors and the involvement of one generation to another.”

Rabbi Sheldon Marder, the Home’s full-time rabbi, agrees. “I love being rabbi of the Jewish Home, but it feels different to be rabbi of a congregation with a name. There is a sense of belonging even more to something because it has a name.”

Residents come with different expectations and experiences with Judaism. For some, it may be their first synagogue exposure. For others, it is a continuation of their lifelong participation in an active Jewish community.

“Services here are joyful, musical and responsive to the diversity of language, background and knowledge of our population,” says Marder.

Three weddings of residents, a baby-naming and many b’nai mitzvah have taken place here. In addition to lifecycle celebrations of the residents themselves, b’nai mitzvah of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are occasionally held or repeated here to enable a resident to witness these significant milestones.

Given that the average age of residents is 88, a large number of memorials take place in the synagogue as well. “All of the lifecycle events are celebrated here, but everything is more significant. Because they have more than their fair share of loss, the community is always trying to understand death,” according to Stephanie Kolin, a rabbinic intern with the Hebrew Union College in New York.

The community is also actively celebrating life, and one another.

Ilse Loewe, an active member of the congregation who marked her bat mitzvah last year, was suffused with pride at the naming ceremony. She came up with the name L’Dor Vador, which was selected by a committee of residents. “This day and my wedding day are the highlights of my life,” she says. “This is my contribution. I achieved belonging somewhere.”

The sense of belonging is important to all residents throughout the Home’s campus. To make it easier for large numbers of residents to participate, Friday night services are held in the atrium of the Howard A. Friedman Pavilion. Residents play tambourines and a staff member accompanies on guitar. A cantor participates during the High Holy Days.

Saturday morning services are more traditional. Torah learning is a significant part of the two-hour service, with residents receiving aliyot. Afterward, a Kiddush is held in the main lounge, with challah, cake, juice and wine.

“There’s an exodus to the food,” jokes Kolin, who points out that the socializing is extremely important to residents.

Services move at a leisurely pace, with time for translations in Hebrew, English and Russian and with ample opportunities for questions and comments by the residents. “People say things out loud here that are on the minds in synagogues all over the world,” Kolin adds.

The congregation not only serves the diverse needs of the Home’s residents but also its 650 staff members, most of whom are not Jewish. Whether it is an interfaith service for a seriously ill maintenance worker or a daylong worship on Sept. 12, 2001, “we are there for all members of the Home’s family when they need solace,” says Marder.

L’Dor Vador is an independent synagogue, drawing from many traditions. “It is truly one of the most progressive congregations in Northern California,” adds Marder, a Reform rabbi. “There is real acceptance here of what others in the community need or want.”

To Margaret Lissner, who became a bat mitzvah two years ago at age 85, “the synagogue is the main thing.

“In my time, girls didn’t count in the Jewish religion. We couldn’t study. Here, they teach everyone. The rabbi is wonderful. You can ask him questions and questions and questions,” says Lissner, who lost her parents in the Holocaust, her daughter to cancer and her husband two years ago. “I have had a very hard life but I find some consolation in religion and in the synagogue.”

Adds Kolin: “The synagogue is a sanctuary in the greatest sense of the word. Residents feel safe here. There are no doctors, no tests, nothing to remind them that they are not perfectly well.”

When he first arrived at the Jewish Home, Marder asked residents what they wanted from him. “Give us hope,” one resident requested. And that hopefulness abounds inside the synagogue walls.