Departing Sha’ar Zahav rabbi gets oodles of accolades

At Congregation Sha’ar Zahav’s Shabbat services two weeks ago, congregants had a chance to express their appreciation for Camille Angel, who is leaving after 15 years as the senior rabbi.

Following services, a lad of 10 approached her and asked, “What does it feel like to be someone who has so many people loving you in one room?”

Rabbi Camille Angel in 2001

“I was so taken aback,” Angel said. “Then he asked, ‘Can you really feel it?’ I was like, ‘Shabbat shalom, Buddha.’ ”

There are a lot of warm, nostalgic feelings going around the San Francisco congregation as Angel says goodbye. She said the need to spend more time parenting her 13-year-old daughter and a desire to try something new spurred her decision to step down. Interim Rabbi Ted Riter will take over on July 1.

Friends and colleagues look back on her tenure with admiration and gratitude.

“When I first met her I thought she was a mensch, and I still think so,” said Al Baum, a longtime member of the predominantly LGBT Reform congregation. “There’s no pretense about her at all. She’s very straightforward, which to me is an asset.”

A native of Los Angeles and daughter of a rabbi, Angel came to Sha’ar Zahav in 2000 after five years as associate rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan. She became the first lesbian head rabbi of Sha’ar Zahav, taking over as the congregation found itself in transition from AIDS crisis mode to a more family-oriented climate.

Angel reads the newly published Siddur Sha’ar Zahav in 2009

By the time she arrived, Sha’ar Zahav was already experiencing what she called “a gayby boom.”

“She presided over the beginnings of Sha’ar Zahav being attractive not just to LGBT people [but] attractive to Jews of all kinds,” said Rabbi Eric Weiss, CEO of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center and a longtime friend of Angel’s. “As LGBT rights became mainstream, and members had babies, it was natural for the congregation to develop its own religious school.”

Among the key achievements of Angel’s tenure was the 2009 publication of Siddur Sha’ar Zahav, a prayerbook compiled by congregants and oriented toward LGBT community solidarity.

An incomplete, early version had been in use when Angel arrived at the synagogue, but over time she found ways to challenge congregants to finish the job. She did that by asking whether they preferred to adopt the new Reform siddur, Mishkan T’filah, or complete their own.

In 2014, she says a prayer over Bernie at the San Francisco SPCA’s “Blessing of the Animals.”

“I started to use that as a wedge between the issues of having it really be ours versus saving ourselves the hard work and adopting [Mishkan T’filah],” Angel recalled. “That turned up the heat on those who didn’t feel any Reform siddur would represent the diversity of Sha’ar Zahav.”

Her friend and congregant Arthur Slepian credits Angel for providing the inspiration to complete the siddur.

“It was in many ways a lay-led project, but ultimately it took rabbinic leadership to bring it to fruition,” Slepian said. “It’s a book that’s changing the face of the Jewish world, and was a milestone in the development of Sha’ar Zahav. It’s hard to do a siddur by consensus. Her leadership got people around the table to agree on what the final project would look like.”

Today the siddur has been adopted by congregations as far away as Israel and Cuba and is used in colleges, prisons and hospitals.

The rabbi said she will never forget the first time she officiated at a state-sanctioned same-sex wedding.

Rabbi Camille Angel

“To be able to pronounce the words, ‘By the authority vested in me by the state of California’ … I had said those words innumerable times for straight couples, and when I came in 2000, the thought that I would actually officiate at gay and lesbian weddings at City Hall was beyond my imagination.”

The rabbi is also gratified by her impact on the synagogue’s youth, in particular the post–b’nai mitzvah kids who grew up in homes with two mommies or two daddies. For nine years she led an annual trip to Washington, D.C., during which Sha’ar Zahav teens met with leaders such as Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center.

Angel remembers with pride how some of those teens became ambassadors for their unique San Francisco community as they met with leaders and peers.

“Our young people were able to come from a place of Jewish values and create a positive, forward, more just society,” Angel said. “Today some of them are teachers, and many wrote about the [Washington] experience in their college applications.”

Congregational president Laura Lowe says Angel’s leadership helped Sha’ar Zahav move forward over the past 15 years. “You have to have someone driving the bus,” Lowe said. “She brought the vision.”

Lowe lauded the rabbi’s efforts to bring a Mussar project to the synagogue, in which congregants studied the venerated Jewish ethics discipline, and said she’ll never forget her 2013 congregational trip to Cuba led by Angel.

“She made sure whenever we met with a Jewish group there to say we are an LGBT community,” Lowe said. “It was part of our identity.”

Added Weiss, “She encouraged the congregation to embrace the fullness of Jewish life, both in the broader world as well as the LGBT experience, everything from local tikkun olam projects to larger conversations about Israel. At the same time, she tended to liturgical needs [and] encouraged the congregation to be both deep and broad in its place in the community.”

Angel said the next phase of her career will surely involve Jewish education. Meanwhile, she said she already misses the “sacred privileges” she enjoyed as a pulpit rabbi.

“I will miss the freedom to experiment, to introduce all kinds of innovations without having to work too hard to persuade people,” she said. “I had a unique rabbinate at Sha’ar Zahav.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.