happy Jews carry a Torah under a canopy
In 2014, members of Or Shalom Jewish Community, San Francisco's only Reconstructionist synagogue, marched three miles through San Francisco with their Torah to the synagogue's current location. (Photo/Gilberto Ramirez)

Or Shalom, S.F.’s only Reconstructionist shul, marks 25 years

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San Francisco’s only Reconstructionist synagogue, Or Shalom Jewish Community, will celebrate its 25th anniversary on Feb. 4.

The event will celebrate several milestones for the congregation, which did not formally affiliate with the Reconstructionist movement until 2008. Before then, Or Shalom identified as unaffiliated and independent after several years inspired by the Renewal movement.

“The congregation felt that it wanted to be part of something bigger than itself, and it wanted to benefit from the resources that a movement can provide,” Rabbi Katie Mizrahi said.

Katie Mizrahi's face
Rabbi Katie Mizrahi

Mizrahi, who joined Or Shalom in 2007, has watched the congregation grow from about 100 households to 170. She said many who join are already familiar with the Reconstructionist movement, which, Mizrahi noted, is not as well known as it is on the East Coast. The movement is committed to egalitarian, inclusive worship and progressive, humanistic values.

“We see a lot of members who have never been part of an organized religious community before or have come back to it after many years of rejecting it,” she said. “Others join us who maybe did not have a strong Jewish education in their childhood but did have a strong sense of Jewish identity.”

The Or Shalom website states that the congregation welcomes people who are “Jewish, non-Jewish and ‘it’s complicated’; straight, gay and ‘it’s complicated’; single, married and ‘it’s complicated’; old and young and in between. All are welcome.”

We see a lot of members who have never been part of an organized religious community before or have come back to it after many years of rejecting it. — Rabbi Katie Mizrahi

Reconstructionist Judaism, the smallest of the four major Jewish denominations in the U.S., was founded in the United States in the early 20th century by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. It posits Judaism as the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people, rejecting such traditional concepts as the divine origin of Torah and Jews having been chosen by God.

Or Shalom’s take on the movement adds in a political element, Mizrahi said.

“When we started, many members were left of center, especially regarding Israel and Palestine issues, suggesting there could be a two-state solution,” she said.

Others who joined the congregation had felt their Jewish identity was denied by others “Some had married non-Jewish spouses and were feeling excluded from Jewish communities,” she said. Even with the synagogue’s growth, Mizrahi hasn’t seen widespread adoption of Reconstructionist Judaism in San Francisco or the surrounding Bay Area, with just three other affiliated congregations among about 100, mostly in North America.

Or Shalom began when founding Rabbi Pamela Frydman went to local homes to teach children Jewish lessons. Since then, it’s been based in several locations, including at Synergy School, the Noe Valley Ministry, St. John’s United Church of Christ and Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District.

The congregation still lacks a building of its own. About three years ago, it moved into Congregation Beth Israel Judea on Brotherhood Way, where the Feb. 4 celebration will be held. The event will honor founding members Judy Olasov and Betsy Strausberg, Rabbi Frydman, Mizrahi and others.

Saul Sugarman

Saul Sugarman is a freelance writer.