Counting the Omer on the streets of San Francisco

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

On the night of May 3, next to the roaring traffic on busy 19th Avenue in San Francisco, a dozen people gathered to tell a few jokes, sing songs and count the Omer.

Starting a few minutes late — the group was on “Jewish standard time” one of the participants joked — those assembled held a Havdallah service and then proceeded to count the 19th day of the Omer.

People gather on 19th Avenue to count the Omer on May 3. photo/max a. cherney

Counting the Omer is an injunction to count the number of each day out loud during the 49 days between the second day of Passover and Shavuot.

Coincidentally, San Francisco has 49 avenues, which led to the birth of the Omer Project last year after Yeashore Community maggid Jeff Haas and Reuben Politi put two and two together — or, more accurately, 49 and 49.

The organizers decided to plan gatherings on selected days at avenues corresponding with the day of the Omer. This year, 16 gatherings have been scheduled, all within the Richmond and Sunset districts.

It’s an effort to get people to come together and publicly participate in the counting ritual, while also injecting a post-denominational spirit into the proceedings — meaning, according to the organizers, that they included a plurality of traditions.

The May 3 group, which met near the intersection of 19th Avenue and Holloway Avenue, near San Francisco State University, was made up mostly of men, though there was a range of ages represented. “It’s multigenerational,” participant David Morgenstern said. “There are college kids and gray beards.”

The Omer Project’s ritual includes five steps: stating one’s intention to count the Omer, a brief blessing, actually uttering aloud the specific day of the Omer, reading a psalm and then saying a brief prayer for those in captivity.

“The Omer period connects between the move from slavery to freedom and the receiving of the Torah,” Rabbi Danny Gottlieb of San Francisco Congregation Beth Israel Judea explained to J. last year. “It’s a transition from freedom to the embracing of mitzvot and working toward achieving God’s will.”

In addition to the ritual activities, some members of the group enjoyed telling jokes, which took the event a little bit in the direction of the popular Web series “Old Jews Telling Jokes.”

The 14th day of the Omer was observed on 14th Avenue near Balboa Street.

There was a sing-along component, too. Among other songs, organizers Haas and Politi penned original lyrics about the Omer, set to George Gershwin’s famous “Summertime” from the 1935 opera “Porgy and Bess.”

Each of the days during the Omer, according to kabbalistic tradition, has a designated combination of two separate serifot — emanations of “The Infinite” — tied to the 49 gates of impurity of Egyptian bondage, and the Sinai revelation. Calendars of the 49 permutations eventually developed into artwork.

At the May 3 gathering, the corresponding combination of serifot was tiferet (beauty) and hod (splendor). Haas explained to the group that working together, the two ideas suggest the importance of centering compassion for others around humility. “Compassion should not be condescending,” he said.

Each of the 16 gatherings during the 49 days will include a kabbalistic lesson, Haas noted.

But the gatherings go beyond lessons and fulfilling the commandment to count, Gottlieb added. He stressed that the event brings together various “shades” of the Jewish community, and does so in a public way, in a public place.

“At one event, a Chabad rabbi and a Reconstructionist rabbi were debating,” Haas said. “It was incredible to listen to.”

San Francisco has 49 avenues if one includes Arguello Street as the first and the Great Highway as the 49th.  “Someone at the planning commission must be inspired by God,” Haas quipped during the May 3 gathering.

Most of the gatherings are near synagogues or other Jewish institutions, such as the April 28 event on 14th Avenue (outside the Lisa Kampner Hebrew Academy) and a May 30 event on 46th Avenue (adjacent to Congregation B’nai Emunah). The next gathering will be on Saturday, May 10, on 26th Avenue (near Congregation Adath Israel).

Last year 11 congregations and organizations signed on; this year, organizers said the number increased to 15.

Part of the organizers’ thinking on the project has to do with progressively moving toward the ocean: The last event is slated to take place on the Great Highway, across from the Beach Chalet, on June 2. Haas said the counting of the Omer helps one spiritually move closer to Torah, for which the ocean proves to be a useful metaphor. “It’s deep and full, and the fish are like rabbis immersed within it,” he said.

Haas and Politi said they have plans to expand the project, and that they want to create a series of trading cards, one for each of the 49 days.

The Omer Project will have eight more gatherings through June 2. Free.

max cherney
Max A. Cherney

Max A. Cherney is a former J. staff writer.