Rabbi Jeremy Sher leads the Open Shabbat service at the 16th Street BART station in San Francisco. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)
Rabbi Jeremy Sher leads the Open Shabbat service at the 16th Street BART station in San Francisco. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

‘Open Shabbat’ welcomes the Sabbath with San Francisco’s unhoused

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Mike stood for the Barchu, a prayer offering blessings to God for eternity.

“You have to put your faith in God,” he said. “God must come first.”

Behind him two men laid on bare mattresses, one with a blanket over his head. City buses wheezed to a stop on Mission Street; pigeons attacking discarded food scraps jump-flew to avoid foot traffic. At the corner, born-again Christians spoke into a public address system: “Those who do not follow Jesus are on the road to destruction!”

Moments later, Mike would bow his head during the Amidah, a silent meditation. He prayed for clarity in the face of an important decision. The 53-year-old resident of the Mission District said he had a couple of job opportunities in the works but was unemployed and struggling to make ends meet.

“I needed a little prayer,” he said.

It was, in some ways, a characteristic evening in San Francisco’s Mission District, a neighborhood accustomed to fervent expressions of religious feeling. The area gets its name from an 18th-century Catholic mission whose purpose was to evangelize to Native peoples; to this day, pedestrians entering or exiting the 16th Street Mission BART station are often confronted with devout expressions of faith in English and Spanish.

And yet, this night was a bit different. About a dozen folding chairs sat outside the station’s southwest exit, facing a long table covered by a royal blue tablecloth on which rested two freshly baked challahs.

It was the second occurrence of Open Shabbat, a new al fresco service held on the fourth Friday of every month outside the station. Led by Rabbi Jeremy Sher, a hospital chaplain ordained through the Renewal movement, Open Shabbat is affiliated with San Francisco Night Ministry, an interfaith nonprofit that lends spiritual care to the city’s unhoused, poor, and people with HIV/AIDS.

Night Ministry dates to the 1960s and already hosts a weekly outdoor Open Cathedral service that concludes with a hot meal. But Sher saw a demand for a Shabbat offering. Since becoming involved with Night Ministry last summer, he’s led two Open Shabbats, including one in the Tenderloin, and one Open Hanukkah; they were well attended, and well received.

“We thought they were so good. So I’ve joined them as a staff rabbi,” he said.

Rabbi Jeremy Sher fixes a hot dog for one of the "Open Shabbat" attendees. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)
Rabbi Jeremy Sher fixes a hot dog for one of the Open Shabbat attendees. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

Open Shabbat is an opportunity to celebrate “with a mixed multitude of folks,” he said, using a phrase from Exodus. At Open Shabbat, “we meet people where they are, and respect their space, their feelings and their belongings,” Sher wrote on the front page of the service siddur.

Rob, a 58-year-old musician who busks each morning at the Civic Center BART station, arrived early for the service. A city fixture, he wore a San Francisco Giants jacket and Giants hat, and had a Giants blanket covering his belongings. Though he is not Jewish, he said he came to see his friend.

“I’m just here to support him,” he said of Sher, who has been doing pastoral work with the poor since 2017.

Rob, who said he has AIDS, used to have a lot of Jewish friends, he told J. But “I’m homeless now, so it makes things complicated.” He once worked as a music therapist, but today sleeps outside near a local Boys & Girls Club. He keeps his belongings at a nearby storage facility.

“I used to be a normal person before I was homeless,” he said.

For some, the service presented a learning opportunity. A man named Anthony, who wore a dark, puffy jacket with a hood pulled over his head on a windy San Francisco evening, asked Sher what was going on, and whether there would be food. Sher said there would be, but first there would be a service. “A Jewish service,” he added.

“Jewish, huh?” Anthony replied. “I never heard of that.”

Nevertheless, Anthony sat down for the full hour and, during the Mishebeirach prayer, said the name of someone he knew in need of healing.

Every Open Shabbat concludes with a meal provided by a local synagogue; on July 22 it was sponsored by Congregation Ner Tamid, a Conservative shul in the Sunset District. Sha’ar Zahav, a historically LGBTQ+ synagogue located across the street from Mission Dolores, also participates. On this night, S.F. Night Ministry staff served kosher hot dogs and potato salad, which dozens of nearby unhoused and poor people came to eat.

The service lasted about an hour — it was a Kabbalat Shabbat service welcoming the Sabbath. Sher described Shabbat to those who had never heard of it: a day so joyous, the sages say, it should be treated like a wedding.

He was assisted by Emma and Molly, Jewish clinical pastoral students with S.F. Night Ministry. They read prayers in English and sang in Hebrew, including “Hinei Ma Tov,” “How good this is and how pleasant, all of us sitting together.” And “Shalom Aleichem.”

Throughout much of the service, Sher had to compete with the loud, Christian proselytizers on the corner. They had strung a large banner from a street lamp to a palm tree, reading “Only One Way To God: Jesus.”

A Christian proselytizes to pedestrians at the 16th Street BART station. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)
A Christian proselytizes to pedestrians at the 16th Street BART station. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

The Shabbat service was interactive and peppered with brief textual interpretations, Bible stories and a sermon. Sher explained that the Mishebeirach prayer asked God for healing for the sick — a few people chimed in with names of loved ones in need of healing. “My grandmother,” one man said. After the V’ahavta, a prayer about loving God, Sher asked people to share a story of being afraid; a time when they persevered through faith. Mike told a story about nearly escaping death in a fire.

For his sermon, Sher spoke in support of wealth redistribution, tied to the Book of Numbers. He described what he called “blasphemous” wealth disparities in the city.

“There is so much food here in the Mission,” he said. “And yet people go hungry.”

Only a few chairs at the service were filled by people not associated with the Night Ministry, but others lingered nearby, listening. Sher said the chairs were full the previous month; but this time, because of a miscommunication, there was no microphone, which prevented more passersby from being drawn into the service.

At times the scene felt chaotic. Occasionally, people who were mentally ill or under the influence of drugs or alcohol happened by, partially clothed and clearly in dire straits. Muni buses and other traffic came and went on Mission Street as commuters traversed the trash-littered plaza.

Still, it felt to Trent Thornley, the executive director of S.F. Night Ministry, as if the service had created a spiritual “field” in the midst of surrounding chaos. To him, it was easy to focus on Sher, Emma and Molly. “I only heard every third word” of what the neighboring Christian group was saying, he said.

The born-agains carried on mercilessly during the service, and at times they appeared to target the Jewish worshippers with their messages.

“Salvation is found in a man, not from works,” a proselytizer proclaimed through the PA system. “That man is Jesus.”

Around the middle of the service, Sher was fed up. It was time to say the Shema. He shouted at the top of his lungs, his face red with exertion, lingering on each word:

Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad!” (“Listen, Israel: Adonai is our God; Adonai is One!”)

“This is our statement of faith. This is our statement that ‘we’re here,’” Sher said afterward. “A lot of people would prefer that we be dead.”

Mike attended the "Open Shabbat" service at the 16th Street BART station in San Francisco. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)
Mike attended the Open Shabbat service at the 16th Street BART station in San Francisco. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

Mike, who was raised Baptist but said he has an uncle in the East Bay who converted to Judaism, connected with the service. He had been through a painful divorce, he said, and was recovering from gambling losses. He nodded his head often while Sher spoke.

“I like the way the pastor put it out there,” he said of Sher. “You could feel it was from his heart. You could see where he was trying to go with it.”

Another man, his face ruddy from the effects of exposure to weather, asked Sher a question before the service. He wanted to know the Jewish take on the story of Adam and Eve, and the meaning of the devil.

The rabbi spoke to the man for a while, saying that in Judaism, rabbis don’t consider the devil to oppose God. The devil is someone or something who tempts us to do wrong. The word Satan, he said, means “adversary.”

The man said he agreed with what the rabbi was saying. “I got the chills,” he said.

Sher estimated the cost of food to be around $200. Open Shabbat is seeking additional sponsors for its events, and welcomes local synagogues that want to join the service, serve food and mingle with attendees.

Sher hopes Open Shabbat will become an ongoing tradition — attracting both housed and unhoused congregants. People looking for a different kind of synagogue experience.

The Jewish community can, at times, feel “insular,” he said, naming expensive synagogue memberships, among other things.

“There are a lot of people who just don’t fit in with the Jewish community as it’s constructed,” he said. “Poverty is one reason, but there are also other reasons.

“I would love to grow this into a little group,” he added. “It doesn’t have to be a million people. But I’d be happy if the chairs were full.”

SF Night Ministry’s Open Shabbat. Fourth Friday every month, 5:30-7 p.m. 16th Street Mission BART plaza. Free.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.