Underground shul

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If you walk past the corner grocer, you’ve gone too far. You’ll have to turn around.

Tucked among Sutter Street’s travel agents, beauty parlors, liquor stores and live-work flats and down a short ramp into a subterranean antechamber is San Francisco’s oldest Orthodox shul, 100-year-old Congregation Keneseth Israel.

If you knock on the glass door, Henry Falkenberg will be there to answer it.

Falkenberg’s wise, weathered face betrays his 75 years, but he demonstrates the springy step and rapid gait of a man 40 years younger as he glides throughout the makeshift shul, where he does everything from leading Shabbat services to cooking Friday night dinner.

The retired insurance agent has been worshipping at Keneseth Israel since his German refugee family arrived in San Francisco in 1942. Back then, the synagogue was a bustling, 700-family institution in the heart of the city’s heavily Jewish Fillmore neighborhood.

By 1972, however, movement to the suburbs had virtually drained the Fillmore of its Jews, and the shul was more like a shell. The synagogue was sold, and, for the past 30-plus years, Keneseth Israel has occupied rented space, landing in its current one-floor subterranean flat at 873 Sutter in 1999.

Despite a membership that has never grown much larger than a dozen in those three decades, Keneseth Israel is still here, thanks in large part to the kindness of strangers. As the only Orthodox shul in downtown San Francisco — within walking distance from the hotels — it’s the place to be on Shabbat for observant travelers.

Ben Sporn, a lawyer from Lawrence, N.Y., has been attending Keneseth Israel services for 30 years, whenever he’s in town.

“It’s a significant community service that [Falkenberg] renders, and San Francisco is a city that has always had visitors from other parts of the country as well as foreign visitors. Those who want to attend Sabbath services always seem to end up there,” he said.

“The fact he provides meals makes the Sabbath preparation very simple. One only needs to show up.”

Adds Paul Rufert, a social worker from Silver Springs, Md., who attended services in December, “What’s really nice is that they daven slowly. I’m a slow davener and I really love that.”

The weekly ritual of greeting a new congregant from back East or Israel, Australia or Europe provides an interesting contrast for Keneseth Israel’s regulars. On the one hand, like “Cheers,” everyone knows your name. But, on the other hand, there’s always a new person from somewhere far away.

Some worshippers are more memorable than others. Falkenberg chuckled when he recalled the East Coast-based Satmar Chassidic brothers in black coats and wide-brimmed hats who always find a way to excuse themselves for 15 minutes during services so they don’t have to partake in the congregation’s prayers for the safety of the Israeli army.

Actress Sandra Bernhard and a number of filmmakers in town for the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, however, did not walk out on services, Falkenberg assured.

As Falkenberg spins tales, the shul’s 100-year history spills into its halls. The man congregants call “Reb” bobs and weaves around ancient chairs and Jewish encyclopedias, his long, white hair flowing out from under a black yarmulke, as he gives the tour of the small flat.

The eye-catching chairs, with their sturdy wood backs and maroon velour seats, incidentally, hail from the old Orpheum theater on Market Street. Its owner was a former congregant. Some of the chairs are emblazoned with a wrought iron Star of David on their sides, leading Falkenberg to surmise they once sat in Congregation Beth Israel (the theater-owner was a former president of that now-defunct synagogue).

A lace mechitzah separates the 10-chair women’s section from the 19-seat main sanctuary. Beautiful, pre-World War I siddurs lie in the corner and a gorgeous wooden ark opens to reveal four Torahs from the shul’s Fillmore heyday.

On the porch out back, the skeleton of a sukkah shivers in the winter wind, a few dried branches dangling off the open roof.

When the shul isn’t conducting services on Shabbat or holidays, Falkenberg leads classes in Tanach, Talmud or, his specialty, the Kabbalah. (When asked his knowledge of the Kabbalah, the scholarly Falkenberg replied modestly, “I know something of it.”)

“In Israel I learned in yeshiva, and his level of class is very, very good,” said Colete Nelkin, who, along with her husband, Yoram, immigrated to San Francisco from Israel last year.

Adds Noach Bittelman, a Berkeley acupuncturist, “He is a meat-and-potatoes scholar, meaning Talmud, Chumash [Torah and Haftarah] and Zohar. He has a well-honed sense of where each student is at and what they need to be focusing on.”

Bittelman takes classes several days a week over the phone.

All is not well at the small shul, however. The $72,000 Keneseth Israel received for the sale of its building 30 years ago has dwindled down to almost nothing. Congregants stretch every dollar. There’s no janitor and the trash cans are held together with duct tape. The synagogue’s $1,500 monthly rent and additional costs are bolstered somewhat by out-of-towners’ donations, but, Falkenberg says, he is no longer able to make ends meet.

Congregants have begun making calls to local Jewish agencies, and Falkenberg has began contacting longtime out-of-town visitors. Still, he is unsure what the future will bring.

“We live from hand to mouth here at the synagogue,” he said, his lilting, accented voice low and solemn.

“Don’t forget, most out-of-town people get their idea of Jewish life in San Francisco from this place. This is how they meet Jewish San Franciscans, and they don’t know anything else.”

The out-of-towner Rufert hopes San Franciscans will learn to appreciate Keneseth Israel as much as he does.

“I think this facility should be used as a community asset. Who knows what could be done? What are the ways the broader community could help these guys?” he asked.

“As shuls go, this was a very nice place.”

For more information about Keneseth Israel, call (415) 771-3420.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.