Rainbow-colored challah at Congregation Sha'ar Zahav's 2018 Pride Shabbat. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)
Rainbow-colored challah at Congregation Sha'ar Zahav's 2018 Pride Shabbat. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

Pride Shabbat is this LGBTQ synagogue’s highest holiday

First, there were cocktails. At Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, the historically LGBTQ synagogue in the Mission, in a festively decorated upstairs social hall (rainbow stuff everywhere), members gathered to kick off the biggest Shabbat of the year: Pride Shabbat. There was beer. There was wine. There was booze. And once the service started in the sanctuary, it showed in the best way.

On a previous Friday night visit, Sha’ar Zahav was more or less indistinguishable from any other Reform synagogue its size (about 300 member-units). But not this week. On the way in, my dad and I were handed a siddur with the cheery greeting “Shabbat Shalom, Happy Pride!”

Rainbow streamers hung from the ceiling. Rainbow kippot (and at least one trans flag kippah) could be seen. My dad and I sat in the very back with Paul, a longtime Sha’ar Zahav member who served as synagogue president in the early ’80s. I was glad when I ran into Paul during the cocktail hour; we’d had a good time seated next to each other at the AJC Diplomats Seder earlier this year.

It took longer than usual to quiet people down to start the service as Cantor Sharon Bernstein led a klezmer-inflected band through a couple of instrumental pieces. Bernstein plays piano and sings; I’m not normally a fan of piano in shul, but this was working for me.

It was a rowdy, happy crowd. If most synagogues could muster this level of energy and sheer fun on any day of the year, the Jews would be in a pretty good place. And it was packed with all ages (though very few children). While a majority were men, all genders and sexes were in evidence. “This is about three times what we get on a regular Shabbat,” Paul told me. Among them was newly elected San Francisco Supervisor Rafael Mandelman (my supe!), not the first gay Jewish supervisor to be a member of this synagogue. At the end of the service, he was called upon to lead Kiddush — which, naturally, featured a challah with rainbow food coloring.

In her brief welcoming remarks, Rabbi Mychal Copeland, who has been at Sha’ar Zahav for about a year, wished us all “Chag sameach!” Singing along with Bernstein was member Nathan Robinson, who mainly led the English readings.

“A holiday like Purim is fun,” Copeland said. “But this is chag!” And she made it clear that, like any Jewish holiday celebration, this one wasn’t happening only in this synagogue. “We join our sister congregations around the world in celebrating Pride Shabbat tonight.”

Rabbi Mychal Copeland took over as spiritual leader of Congregation Sha'ar Zahav in July, 2017. (Photo/Norm Levin)
Rabbi Mychal Copeland took over as spiritual leader of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in July 2017. (Photo/Norm Levin)

I know from prior experience that this community has a longstanding tradition of singing Hinei Mah Tov near the beginning of every service. People stand and place their arms around each other, swaying together. This wonderful minhag tells the story of this community: It began in a time when society did not embrace LGBTQ people, when AIDS patients were denied the most basic human joy, that of physical contact with fellow humans.

As Robinson attempted to begin a responsive reading shortly after, Paul shouted, “Closer to the mic, please!” to which Robinson replied, “I welcome that level of participation throughout the service.” (*laughter*)

Lighting Shabbat candles on the bimah is a strong tradition among Reform congregations. Bernstein called up a group of members to bless the candles: “These are people who have in the last year furthered LGBT rights, and are our heroes.”

The seven candles in the menorah were the colors of the rainbow. After the blessing, they said the bracha for seeing a rainbow: “… zocher habrit, ne’eman b’brito, v’kayam b’ma’amaro,” blessing God for remembering the covenant with Noah.

The symbolism that night was unsubtle and thick on the ground — as the hammy spirit of Pride weekend demands.

Robinson, introducing “Shalom Aleichem,” a song that mentions angels, implored all to “Think of your queer-fabulous self as an angel!” (*laughter*)

Bernstein (introducing Lecha Dodi, a piyyut that welcomes the Sabbath Queen): “Who wants to be the Sabbath Queen tonight?” Robinson: “I’d venture a guess that everyone in this room is a Sabbath Queen!” (*woooooing* *laughter* *general rowdiness*)

At Sha’ar Zahav, in a tradition not often observed in liberal congregations, mourners were welcomed with the line, “Hamakom yenachem et’chem betoch she’ar aveilei Tziyon viYrushalayim veha’olam” — “May God comfort you together with all who mourn in Zion and Jerusalem and throughout the world.”

Said Robinson, “If you’re hurting — maybe Pride has sad associations for you — we welcome you with these words.”

Sha’ar Zahav’s beautiful, unique prayerbook is, of the 120-plus siddurs I own, by far the heaviest — so heavy I’m tempted to call it an accessibility issue. It is full of fun, meaningful, liturgical tweaks. Hinei Mah Tov is sung three times, once with the traditional line, “How good it is to dwell together as brothers”; a second time replacing brothers with sisters; a third time replacing brothers with kulanu, “all of us.” In Ve’ahavta, the Torah text is altered such that we are commanded to teach our sons and our daughters. The back is also chock-full of special seasonal readings for every imaginable occasion, from the Fourth of July to Transgender Day of Remembrance. Rather than a siddur to be used on a regular basis, my own copy serves more as a compilation of resources.

Introducing Mi Chamocha, Bernstein said: “This melody goes back to Sinai.” A small synagogue choir started in with a tune entirely unfamiliar to me. After the text of the prayer had been sung, they moved into English lyrics, also unfamiliar to me.

Who wants to be the Sabbath Queen tonight?

“Is my straightness showing? I have no idea what this is,” I said, leaning over to Paul. He responded, “It’s ‘I Am What I Am,’ a gay men’s chorus classic.” Then he added: “You know, in previous years, the cantor wore a rainbow shtreimel on Pride Shabbat.”

Copeland’s sermon was a discussion of the contrasting concepts of purity and pride.

“Purity and Pride. Those words don’t generally go together,” she said. “Pride is many, many things. But if someone were to ask you to describe it, I’m guessing purity would not top the list. One of our finest pieces of liturgy is a juicy little prayer from our morning service: ‘My God, the soul you placed within me is pure.’ But what does it mean to have a pure soul?”

Citing a Hasidic commentary, Copeland suggested it means the human soul “is not capable of becoming defiled.”

If all are created in the image of God, if “each of us has a soul that in incapable of being anything but pure, perfect, we are exactly as God imagined us … We cannot be unholy. We cannot be unnatural. We cannot be abominations,” she said, forcefully.

“The radical notion that each and every one of us is a pure soul, worthy of dignity and respect, is what started our Pride movement: When a trans woman at Compton’s Cafeteria in the Tenderloin in 1966 threw her coffee in the face of a police officer trying to arrest her, her insistence that she was worthy of being treated with dignity started a riot against police brutality, poverty, oppression and discrimination.”

It was a reminder that we have a transgender woman of color to thank for precipitating the Pride movement. In the 52 years since that incident took place (three years before the more famous Stonewall riot in New York), it feels like so much progress has been made. But let’s not forget: While the majority of white gay men of the Castro can now travel through our liberal city unmolested, there are many trans men and women living on the streets of “progressive” San Francisco. And at least 15 have been murdered in this country this year.

Turning back to the celebration that San Francisco Pride has become, Copeland encouraged congregants to “show off your pure, undefilable soul” at that weekend’s parade. “March, scoot, roll, or sit on our bus if you need to. Remember, God placed within you a pure soul. Show it off. Purity and Pride.”

Following the sermon, perhaps my favorite of Sha’ar Zahav’s Pride traditions, we sang parts of Hallel, a selection of psalms normally sung only on Jewish holidays. Chag sameach, indeed!

As a closing song, Bernstein led us in Adon Olam. Famously, it can be sung to literally any tune, which means it’s always good for a seasonal gag. As she began, Bernstein hit a familiar flourish of opening notes on the piano. My dad’s eyes went wide. Suddenly, we were singing to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”

The whole evening was one delight after another. I’ll see you at Sha’ar Zahav’s Pride Shabbat again in 2019.

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is interim associate editor of J. He previously served as assistant editor and digital editor, and is a member of the board of the American Jewish Press Association. He can be reached at [email protected].