Shul is at home in rabbis Richmond District apartment

Rabbi Isaac Fineman opted for a minyan instead of a couch.

Because his family room accommodates weekly Shabbat dinners and religious classes, he has no need for the usual television and La-Z-Boy.

Fineman founded Kehilat Yaakov one year ago. The home-based Orthodox shul draws a crowd every Friday for prayer and a Shabbat meal (homemade by Fineman’s wife, Ronit), plus twice-weekly Talmud and Hebrew classes.

“It’s a very warm environment, and the rabbi has respect for tradition and people,” said Vlaz Chaban, a congregant and treasurer of the synagogue.

Fineman came to San Francisco from Israel three years ago to work as a rabbi at Congregation Anshey Sfard. He enjoyed working there, he said, but his two-year contract was not renewed.

He had become so popular among some congregants that they asked him to stay and lead a small congregation out of his home. About 15 people offered to help financially support Fineman, his wife and their three children, ages 3, 6 and 9.

Kehilat Yaakov meets in the Richmond District on 23rd Avenue. It is a nice flat in a quiet neighborhood just off of Geary Boulevard. A bookshelf in the family room is filled with prayer books and Jewish theological books, mostly in Hebrew. A big dining room table covered with an ivory cloth stretches almost the length of the room, and a couple piles of folding chairs lean against a nearby wall.

“We are different than other synagogues,” Fineman said. “What is special? We’re trying to give individual attention to each congregant and help them to feel they are at home … The big Shabbos dinner is of great importance. They stay until 11 or 12 at night, and they can eat and talk.

“Usually, you come to synagogues to pray,” he continued. “But if we want the younger guys to stay Jewish and marry Jews, we must also have social places.”

Fineman is leading a congregation on his own. For the first time he said it’s very difficult but worthwhile. His goal is to build a solid congregation that could survive without his leadership, should he decide to move back to Israel.

“It was very hard for him in beginning, but he never said ‘I want to go back,'” said Elad Vaknin, a 26-year-old Israeli living in San Francisco. “He always said, ‘I want to do more. I want to do more.'”

Fineman also recently started to help at Congregation Torath Emeth, a small Orthodox community in San Francisco that serves mostly Russian émigrés, because their service leader and founder died in March. He leads their Saturday morning and evening services in Hebrew.

The two congregations have not discussed a merger, but Fineman said he would not be opposed to such a move.

He also tutors children in Hebrew and Torah study.

Vaknin studies with Fineman every Wednesday night. He said Fineman provides a valuable and unique service to young Orthodox Jews in the Israeli community.

“He’s the only one teaching classes in Hebrew and in English,” Vaknin said. “He wants us Israelis to understand [the Torah] in both languages.”

The synagogue, though small, has a board of directors and regularly scheduled events. Fineman is optimistic that Kehilat Yaakov will continue to grow. He’d like to start a Hebrew school, and hopes that someday he’ll need a building bigger than a three-bedroom flat.

“But this is the way you start,” Fineman said.

“We don’t have a lot of young people in the Orthodox community,” he added. “We don’t have established Talmud classes as in Los Angeles and New York — “

“So we have to build it,” Ronit interjected.

They’re hoping that as they build, people will come.

For more information about Kehilat Yaakov, contact Rabbi Isaac Fineman at (415) 668-1164 or [email protected]

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.