Bob Stein holds up the banner for recently formed Congregation Sha'ar Zahav in June 1979 during the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade. (Photo/Joe Altman-California Historical Society)
Bob Stein holds up the banner for recently formed Congregation Sha'ar Zahav in June 1979 during the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade. (Photo/Joe Altman-California Historical Society)

An inside look at the history of Sha’ar Zahav, San Francisco’s LGBTQ synagogue

Congratulations to J. on digitizing its archives, which tell the story of our remarkable Jewish community. And thank you for the excellent recap of J.’s coverage of LGBTQ Jews over the years (“How we covered – or didn’t cover – LGBTQ Jews,” Feb. 18).

As a founding member of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco, I would like to offer additional observations to those gleaned at

In our synagogue’s earliest days, the San Francisco Jewish Bulletin (J.’s predecessor) refused Sha’ar Zahav’s paid advertisement, returning our check. JCRC associate director Rita Semel and her team quickly pressured the Bulletin to recant, and we were then able to advertise our services in 1977, meeting initially at Glide Memorial Church.

In 1979, the board of the JCCSF agreed to rent space to us for our regular Friday night services and to let us use the gym for our Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.

In 1983, we co-sponsored a full-page ad in the Bulletin challenging the Northern California Board of Rabbis’ opposition to domestic partner legislation.

The 1983 ad asking the Board of Rabbis to reconsider its stance on domestic partnerships.
The 1983 ad asking the Board of Rabbis to reconsider its stance on domestic partnerships.

With the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk on Nov. 27, 1978, Sha’ar Zahav’s Shabbat service on Dec. 1 became a memorial to Supervisor Milk, who had attended High Holiday services with us only weeks before. Dovre Hall (now the Women’s Building) was overflowing, with special Muni bus service provided.

Sha’ar Zahav became an integral part of the Bay Area Jewish community. We actively participated in Israel Independence Day, the Federation’s Super Sunday, recurring vigils for Soviet Jewry at the Soviet Consulate, the rescue of Ethiopian Jews, and leading services at the Jewish Home (now the San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living) when help was needed, and we joined the sanctuary movement for Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees.

In our first congregational trip to Israel in 1993, our visit was heavily covered in the Israeli press. We were welcomed into the Knesset by MK’s Avraham Burg and Yael Dayan, with whom we had a healthy discussion about the importance of Israel’s welcoming of LGBTQ individuals.

In 1988, the Reform movement revised its interpretation of Leviticus 18:22, condemnation of sexual relations between males, conduct for which the death penalty is proscribed. This favorable revised commentary on “Homosexual Relations,” now included in the Reform movement’s “The Torah – A Modern Commentary” (the “Plaut”), was the result of a two-year effort led by Sha’ar Zahav members, including Mike Rankin (z”l) and our rabbi, Yoel Kahn. This, together with our active participation at national and regional meetings of the Reform movement, provided a foundation, I believe, for synagogues to welcome LGBTQ people into their community.

Our newsletter The Jewish Gaily Forward, launched shortly after our founding, and our Siddur Sha’ar Zahav both continue to be used well beyond our membership. As many of our members were not out to family or at work, our early newsletters contained only first names and last initials of members, and they were mailed in an envelope without “Sha’ar Zahav” printed on it.

In 1987, we published a popular cookbook, “Out of Our Kitchen Closets.” Substantial proceeds from its two printings were donated to various AIDS service agencies.

Tragically, we lost many of our members to AIDS, the first in 1983. Walking the peaceful grounds of the Sha’ar Zahav’s section at Hills of Eternity is a stark reminder of the tragedy that befell our congregation. Some are memorialized with a Names Project quilt, including several we sent on the Names Project’s Israel tour in 1990. Sinai Memorial Chapel and the local Jewish community were supportive during that terrible time; for example, some people donated blood when our male members were prohibited from participating in our annual blood drive.

The Bay Area Jewish community also supported us in our efforts to obtain a home of our own, dedicating our Danvers Street home in 1984 and our current home, Mishkan Dolores at 16th Street and Dolores, in 1998.

Rabbi Mychal Copeland has been the spiritual leader of Congregation Sha'ar Zahav since July, 2017. (Photo/Norm Levin)
Rabbi Mychal Copeland of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in front of the synagogue’s building at 16th Street and Dolores. (Photo/Norm Levin)

In 1986, with the increasing number of children in our synagogue, we established our children’s education program, Kadimah (now Beit Sefer Phyllis Mintzer). At our 25th anniversary service held in 2002 at Congregation Emanu-El, we honored Marc Klein, then editor and publisher of the Jewish Bulletin, for his steadfast support.

Congregational affiliation of LGBTQ Jews is higher, I believe, because of the groundbreaking work of those who have been a part of the fabric of Sha’ar Zahav over the years. And it is good news and a sign of our success that we now compete with other Bay Area synagogues for LGBTQ members who are warmly welcomed throughout our community.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Ron Lezell
Ron Lezell

Ron Lezell is a San Francisco licensed fiduciary, former CPA and a founding member of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav.