Or Shalom's new building in Bernal Heights.  (Photo/Open Homes Photography)
Or Shalom's new building in Bernal Heights. (Photo/Open Homes Photography)

After 30 years, San Francisco’s Or Shalom finally has a home of its own

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Three decades after its founding, Or Shalom Jewish Community has finally purchased property of its own.

San Francisco’s first and only Reconstructionist synagogue, it has operated out of living rooms, rented spaces and the occasional park since the community was established in 1991.

But now Or Shalom has closed on a parcel of land that includes three buildings on Cortland Avenue, in the Bernal Heights neighborhood. Leadership hopes to be able to hold services in the new space by late spring 2023.

Amy Mallor
Amy Mallor

Establishing a permanent location for the community has been in the works for seven years, said Amy Mallor, the synagogue’s executive director. “We have been wandering Jews,” Mallor said.

Indeed, for nine years, Or Shalom’s home was at Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District.

Then, starting in 2014, members were able to call Congregation Beth Israel Judea home, and it was at that location on Brotherhood Way where Or Shalom celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2017. (Beth Israel Judea synagogue has since merged with Congregation B’nai Emunah and been renamed Am Tikvah.)

Just before the Covid-19 pandemic started, the wandering continued: Or Shalom vacated its shared/rental space at Beth Israel Judea and only recently established a new indoor meeting place next door, at the Brandeis School of San Francisco.

Rabbi Katie Mizrahi headshot
Rabbi Katie Mizrahi

Further complicating matters, longtime Rabbi Katie Mizrahi stepped down in April, leaving the community without a spiritual leader for the first time in 15 years.

So the decision to buy the property in Bernal Heights has indeed been a “galvanizing moment,” according to Matthew Rudoff, president of Or Shalom’s board.

“I think it’s really making people feel very positive about the outlook for Or Shalom, and the potential for not just our sustainability, but our growth,” Rudoff said.

Finding the property was “kismet,” or fate, Mallor said, as the listing agent was a congregant and member of the board. The new address will place Or Shalom in the center of Cortland Avenue’s bustling commercial corridor, between a religious-themed bar called Holy Water and the laundromat Bernal Bubbles. Of the three buildings the synagogue will own, one is a back cottage that Mallor hopes can be used to house visitors. The other two, both storefronts, will house worship and office space. The property is about 3,100 square feet.

The purchase, which cost close to $2 million, was made possible by a building fund campaign started by members nearly a decade ago. Knowing that the rental/share situation at Beth Israel Judea would last for only six years, congregants have been donating to the campaign all along, Mallor said, and the synagogue has been trying to save money, as well. Soon, a “Cortland Campaign” will be launched to raise additional funds for improvements and upkeep.

Rudoff’s hope is that the new space will help to establish the synagogue as a staple of San Francisco Jewish life and attract new members who may be unfamiliar with Or Shalom’s history and principles.

“We’ve been known as the best-kept secret,” Rudoff said. “We’re hoping to become a little wider-known secret.”

Rabbi Pam Frydman
Rabbi Pam Frydman

Or Shalom began when Rabbi Pamela Frydman wanted a space to teach children, including her own, the fundamentals of Judaism in an egalitarian setting. The community, which is now some 200 families strong, prides itself on diversity and acceptance.

According to the website description: “We 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.”

The synagogue identified itself as independent until 2008, when congregants voted to join with the Reconstructionist movement.

Founded on the ideals of 20th-century thinker Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, Reconstructionist Judaism submits that Judaism is an always evolving religious civilization.

Today, Or Shalom is deeply committed to social justice work. One of its main social justice programs is Sanctuary Or Shalom, a congregation-wide initiative to support immigrants in California.

Or Shalom’s new home is just one part of the community rebuilding after the pandemic and Mizrahi’s departure, Mallor said. Leadership recently brought in an interim rabbi, Rabbi Chaya Gusfield, who has also served at Kehilla Community Synagogue, a Renewal congregation in the East Bay.

“It’s important for the community to know that we are here,” Mallor said. “And we’re not only here, but we’re survivors.”

Lillian Ilsley-Greene
Lillian Ilsley-Greene

Lillian Ilsley-Greene was a staff writer at J. from 2022-2023.