S.F. synagogue transforms itself into a coffeehouse

“Sunrise, Sunset” is one of the best-known and most eminently hummable songs from the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.”

But if Rabbi Mark Melamut of Congregation B’nai Emunah has his druthers, “Sunrise, Sunset” also will come to mean something else: a hip café with superlative coffee, great desserts and top-notch entertainment — all of it in his Conservative synagogue in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset neighborhood.

A self-avowed coffee maven, Melamut thought it was high time to merge café culture with synagogue life. So 1½ years ago, he proposed a coffeehouse setting where, once a month, a broad swath of the Jewish community could come together for fresh-roasted coffee (or hot chocolate or tea), noshes, shmoozing and various performances.

Rocky Mountain Jewgrass performs at Sunrise, Sunset.

For a while, the café was a work in progress, but now it has become a regular fixture. Its name: Sunrise, Sunset. Its slogan: “Coffee, Culture and Community. All Welcome.”

“I know that a number of non-Jewish institutions have coffeehouses, and I believe that there’s a synagogue in New York that runs a café,” Melamut said. “But I wasn’t aware of any other congregational-run establishments of this kind. I wanted to bring Jewish people together for something that was not religious but more cultural.”

Once a month — usually on a Saturday evening — the lights in B’nai Emunah’s social hall are dimmed and tables and chairs are placed in a cabaret-like arrangement. Colorful paintings by San Francisco artist Rabbi Me’irah Iliinsky add to the ambiance.

In his role as a coffee expert — ask him about his favorite Bay Area roasters or the latest in java gadgetry — Melamut can be found in the synagogue’s kitchen, attending to coffee preparation. Soon, members of the audience start to arrive, bringing with them home-baked desserts to share. Around 8 p.m., after everyone has had his or her fill of babka, rugelach, strudel or other sweets, the show begins. One time, it was the Rocky Mountain Jewgrass band; another time, it was Mind Dance, a medley of comedy, mind reading and magic; on Jan. 1, it was Jewish bluesman Saul Kaye.

Admission is free, though donations are accepted. Since Sunrise, Sunset opened its doors in May 2014, it has broken even, Melamut said. But commerce is hardly the point. It’s all about community building.

“What has been clear about Sunrise, Sunset is that people are here not just for the music, but for the socialization,” said longtime B’nai Emunah member and former board president Sharon Bleviss. The café will “never compete as a musical venue,” she noted, but what it does offer is a haimish experience, “a come-into-my-living-room feeling.”

Rabbi Mark Melamut

Not that the music isn’t top-notch. Classical violinist and B’nai Emunah member Fred Lifsitz, of the internationally acclaimed Alexander String Quartet, helped kick off Sunrise, Sunset in 2014, performing with Ben Brussell of Klezmania.

Attendance at the coffeehouse hovers between 40 and 60, and often goes higher. The numbers are augmented by visitors from nearby congregations Beth Israel Judea, Ner Tamid and Or Shalom; together, those three and B’nai Emunah compose the Southside Jewish Collaborative, where cross-promotion is part of the deal.

Since the start of the café, B’nai Emunah membership has enjoyed a bump, rising from 100 households to about 125. However, while Melamut is loath to ascribe the increase to the coffeehouse, he does sense that the 67-year-old congregation is experiencing a “renaissance.”

This is heartening to Lisa Karpanty, a Sunrise, Sunset stalwart and a third-generation member. She brings her 88-year-old mother, Viennese-born Ilse Ullmann, to the café, along with her 8-year-old son, Josh. “It doesn’t matter what age you are,” Karpanty said. “Everyone gets together to enjoy the music. It’s about being together.”

For newer member Andrew Nusbaum, Sunrise, Sunset is a “welcoming, low-pressure event that resonates with a lot of people.”

He called it a “non-intimidating access point,” adding that “no one is out to get me to do anything” at a Sunrise, Sunset event. Then again, Nusbaum is an active board member and volunteers at many events.

For Lifsitz, Sunrise, Sunset has served another purpose. After years and years of crisscrossing the globe with the Alexander String Quartet, he had begun to experience burnout, so he is relishing the opportunity to play in his own synagogue. “It allows me to combine the spiritual, religious and social part of my life with my music,” he said, as well as “to give back to the community in all the ways that I can.”

Sunrise, Sunset
returns 6-10 p.m. Feb. 13 with “Murder Mystery Theater” and potluck dinner buffet. At Congregation B’nai Emunah, 3595 Taraval St., S.F. Free. (415) 664-7373 or www.bnaiemunahsf.org/pg-sunrisesunset.

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.