Mission Minyan milestone: first teen bar mitzvah

It’s hard to believe a precocious 12-year-old, especially one who likes to act in plays, would feel guilty about hogging the spotlight.

But that was how Daniel Fine-Salan felt when he became the first teen to have his bar mitzvah with Mission Minyan, a grassroots, non-denominational Jewish community of mostly young adults and families in San Francisco.

Of course, mixed in with the guilt was a feeling of accomplishment.

Daniel Fine-Salan reads from the Torah a few days before his bar mitzvah. photos/ken maki

“I felt proud of myself for being the first one,” Daniel said. “For me, it was an honor to make history.”

To mark the occasion, about 150 people joined Daniel on Sept. 11 at the Women’s Building in San Francisco — one of several Mission District locations used by the minyan.

The milestone occurred on Shabbat Shuvah, the Saturday between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and Daniel accepted his role without hesitation. A little nervousness rattled him at first, but once he stood before the Torah, he said a calm feeling came over him.

“I don’t know what happened,” Daniel recalled. “I felt totally relieved and like I belonged there. This was my place at the Torah. When you’re up there, all emotion washes away. All you focus is on you and God. That’s what pulled me through.”

Daniel’s mother, Debra Salan, led the Torah service. Her husband, Ken Maki, who converted to Judaism 13 years ago, and her older son, Aram Hava-Salan, also read from the Torah. Daniel’s father traveled from Israel to attend, and other relatives came in from the East Coast.

“I felt incredibly blessed that we were all encouraged to participate,” Debra Salan said. “The fact that the group embraced a family a little outside of their [age] demographic is amazing and indicative of where they might be going, to be this deeply spiritual and active place.”

The Mission Minyan doesn’t have members per se, but most of its participants are young adults without kids, or families with very small children, according to Rabbi Rebecca Joseph. She is one of many spiritual leaders who participate.

Mission Minyan began in late 2003 as a small group of people who welcomed Shabbat with prayer and dinner in an apartment at 18th and Guerrero in San Francisco. They met just once a month for a year.

In 2005, the group outgrew living rooms and began meeting in various locations, such as the Women’s Building on 18th Street near Guerrero Street. For Yom Kippur, the minyan held its services in the Sha’ar Zahav sanctuary, and some 150 to 200 people attended. Weekly Friday night services draw big crowds and there are also holiday celebrations and other events.

It’s a lay-led, non-denominational Jewish community that has no paid staff, relying on its members to volunteer their time and money (and often lead services). In 2009, after years of borrowing Torahs from various congregations, the minyan finally landed its own sacred scroll.

As Daniel read from that Torah, he looked out into the crowd and saw many people to whom he and his family had grown close since joining the community. Daniel said the spirit of Mission Minyan, coupled with its predominantly young adult following, further encouraged him.

“It was the right place,” Daniel said. “I wanted to make Mission Minyan proud and set the standard for all those who come after me.”

“Having the first bar mitzvah was unique and special,” said Joseph, the rabbi Daniel studied with. “But along the lines of how we work as a community, I taught Daniel the same skills that I teach adults learning to read Torah. It’s always with the same goal in mind — that whoever is having a simcha that day will have the skills and be supported to participate in the future.”

In the few weeks since his bar mitzvah, Daniel has been encouraged to take on more roles in the Mission Minyan community. Most recently, he was honored with an aliyah on Yom Kippur.

“I feel honored to be counted as a member of Mission Minyan and obligated to come to every service,” Daniel said, “and to be there on time.”