The little minyan that could: Grassroots Mission Minyan grows up, gets its own Torah

The Mission Minyan began in 2003 as a nameless group of people who welcomed Shabbat with prayer and dinner in an apartment at 18th and Guerrero in San Francisco.

It was a small, intimate gathering that for about a year met only once a month.

Six years later, the group has grown up and grown exponentially in size, well beyond any of the founders’ expectations — and now includes weekly Friday night services that draw standing-room-only crowds, boisterous holiday celebrations and some serious fundraising power.

On Sunday, the Mission Minyan celebrated the arrival of its first Torah, for which the community raised $37,000.

“We’ve not simply bought a Torah but commissioned a Torah — a Torah that would not exist apart from our community’s existence and our impulse to create one, and that’s kinda cool,” said David Henkin, one of the founding members of the minyan.

The Mission Minyan is a lay-led, non-denominational Jewish community that has no paid staff, relies on its members to volunteer their time and money, and rents space around the city for services and events.

Judy Massarano holds the Mission Minyan’s new Torah as the community parades with it through San Francisco’s Mission District. photo/simon goldrei

Since 2005, when the minyan outgrew living rooms and began meeting in the Women’s Building in the Mission District, it has borrowed a succession of Torahs from various congregations, including San Francisco’s Beth Sholom and Oakland’s Beth Jacob.

Until the minyan decided it wanted its own Torah, “We’ve not needed much money to create a community,” Henkin said. “Fundraising has never been the major obstacle we face. That said, we could not have done this without a lot of generosity.”

A Torah of their own became a reality when in 2007 an anonymous donor gave the Mission Minyan a challenge grant of $4,000.

True to the minyan’s grassroots beginnings, the fundraising drive was not led by a professional fundraiser, nor did the Mission Minyan develop a strategy to raise funds. They simply asked members to contribute during services and via an e-newsletter.

All of the donations that followed the first one came from individual members. In total, 109 individuals and families donated to the Torah fund.

“The community decided it was important to have a Torah, and that’s ultimately why we have a Torah,” said Roger Studley, a longtime member. “It’s a very momentous thing for a Jewish community to have a Torah. The entirety of our religion is drawn from the Torah, and it’s just very meaningful for us to have our own.”

Ezra Cattan (left) dipped a quill into ink so that Rabbi Shimon Kraft, a scribe, could fill in the final letters of the Mission Minyan’s new Torah scroll. photo/francis da silva

About 150 people attended the Torah celebration on May 17. The Israeli scribe left 150 letters outlined but not shaded at the end of the scroll. On Sunday, anyone who wanted to could dip a quill in ink and hand it to the scribe, thereby symbolically filling in a letter of the Torah and being intimately involved in its creation and completion.

“There was a real sense of excitement and awe,” said Allison Kestenbaum, who helped plan the Torah celebration. “When people sat down at the scroll they had the look people have when they’re about to sign a ketubah.”

The growth of the minyan — punctuated by its new Torah — has helped usher in a rebirth of the Jewish community in the Mission District, once a center for San Francisco Jewish life (the city’s first mikvah was built there in 1907).

The presence of the Mission Minyan has meant a number of individuals and families have moved to the Mission who otherwise would have not lived in San Francisco at all.

“Four years ago, you could count on one hand the number of kosher homes in walking distance of the minyan — now there are close to 30,” Henkin said.

Minyanites predict the Torah will be a source of pride, and even an avenue of inclusion. A committee of volunteers specifically chose a Hebrew script that is clear and easy to read, and a parchment that is lighter weight than average.

The Torah, Studley added, “establishes us even further as part of the fabric of the Bay Area Jewish community.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.