Grandeur takes center stage for High Holy Days

Here’s what they do at my synagogue for the High Holy Days: Pull back the partition at the rear of the sanctuary and set up about 20 rows of folding chairs behind the pews. Here’s what they do at other synagogues:

Hold services in the 3,000-seat Paramount Theatre in Oakland, the 2,500-seat Flint Center in Cupertino or the 900-seat Herbst Theatre in San Francisco. Or any other number of venues that are larger than their regular worship spaces.

It’s hard to say which is better — a synagogue’s regular sanctuary versus a glorious, 1930s-era Art Deco palace — but I will say I’ve been intrigued by the plethora of interesting venues for High Holy Day services this year.

My curiosity was piqued when I saw an ad in j. for Congregation Kol Shofar of Tiburon. “A Palace to Match the Majesty of the High Holy Days,” it proclaimed, alongside a picture of the Palace of Fine Arts. Striking.

Services actually will be held in the adjacent 1,000-seat Palace of Fine Arts Theater.

Kol Shofar usually has High Holy Days services in its own space, but the sanctuary is undergoing a reconstruction. Not surprisingly, people are abuzz about this year’s setting, despite the trek across Golden Gate Bridge.

At Temple Sinai in Oakland, the buzz is more subdued, considering the ornate Paramount Theatre has been the synagogue’s High Holy Days home since 2001.

“We’ve been there for so many years it feels like a real spiritual venue,” Cantor Ilene Keys said. “We bring the ark, the lectern, the chairs, all the ritual props that make it feel like a home. And the Paramount itself has a very warm, beautiful interior.”

Sinai offers a smaller service in its sanctuary, but the Paramount services usually fill all 1,800 mezzanine seats, as well as many of the 1,200 balcony seats.

In the South Bay, Congregation Beth Am of Los Altos Hills is returning to the Flint Center, a performing arts center in Cupertino. And since Beth Am won’t be in its own sanctuary, Congregation Kol Emeth will use it for its services.

The same thing is happening in Berkeley: Chochmat HaLev is heading to the First Congregational Church of Berkeley, and Aquarian Minyan is stepping into Chochmat HaLev’s space.

In Marin, Congregation Rodef Sholom once again is using the 1,960-seat, Frank Lloyd Wright–designed Marin Civic Center.

One of the most beautiful settings for services has to be the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, where Sha’ar Zahav has been worshiping (and filling all 916 seats) since the late ’90s.

Speaking of magnificent venues, 10 years ago I did an article about the local   Russian Jewish community holding services at Davies Symphony Hall. This year, Rabbi Bentzion Pil’s group will be at the Cathedral Hill Hotel for Yom Kippur, and at Golden Gate Park’s Hall of Flowers for Rosh Hashanah.

Interestingly, Keneset Ha Lev– Community of the Heart, which doesn’t have its own building, also will be at the Hall of Flowers, albeit in a different hall. And after the Rosh Hashanah daytime service, there will be a picnic in the park.

Because of a retrofit project, Congregation Sherith Israel of S.F. is not allowed to have more than 299 people in its sanctuary for more than four straight hours — so Yom Kippur services will be at Calvary Presbyterian Church five blocks away.

Local Chabads also have some interesting venues: U.C. Berkeley’s Pauley Ballroom (Chabad of the East Bay), the Masonic Center in Pleasanton (Chabad of Tri-Valley) and the Mission Cultural Center (Chabad of Noe Valley).

Another intriguing choice is the Scottish Rite Center, a stately, multi-chambered structure on the shores of Oakland’s Lake Merritt. Built in 1927, it’s a blend of great architecture and old-style grandeur. Piedmont’s Kehilla Community Synagogue will be praying in the main 1,500-seat auditorium.

All of these venues are special, but if your synagogue uses its own sanctuary, well, you know what? That’s pretty special, too. Grab that partition and pull.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.