Left: Devorie and Rabbi Menachem Levin inside the former movie theater now being used by Chabad West Portal. Right: The Portal Theater when it opened in 1925.
Left: Devorie and Rabbi Menachem Levin inside the former movie theater now being used by Chabad West Portal. Right: The Portal Theater when it opened in 1925.

Chabad brings new life to S.F. cinema with a Jewish backstory

Crystal chandeliers swing from the ceiling of the lobby of the Empire Theater in West Portal, which is carpeted in mind-bending swirls of orange, teal and black straight from the 1970s. The theater might seem closed — the marquee outside is blank and no there are no sounds of popcorn popping — but inside the lobby there’s plenty of activity as people lean over metal mixing bowls, prepping dough.

It was hamantaschen baking time at Chabad of the Neighborhood, the local Chabad outpost for the San Francisco neighborhood of West Portal, which has taken over the shuttered movie theater’s lobby to use as a Chabad center.

“It works very well for where we are right now,” said Rabbi Mendel Levin. “And we’ll see where it takes us.”

It was a blow to the small, tightly knit neighborhood of West Portal in San Francisco when the movie theater closed. The Empire Theater had been part of the life of the neighborhood since it was founded in 1925. But the pandemic shuttered the doors permanently — until now.

Levin said he first mentioned the possibility of moving into the Empire Theater to Supervisor Myrna Melgar, who represents District 7, at a Hanukkah party last year. Melgar is Jewish, and the board’s first Jewish Latina member. A few months later, she got back to Levin and connected him with Jesse Appleton, the theater’s owner — also Jewish, Levin said.

“This is a great match that meets the needs of the community until there is a permanent plan for the theater,” Melgar said. “We were happy to connect Rabbi Mendel Levin with the new owners of the Empire theater.”

The Empire Theater, originally known as the West Portal or Portal Theater, was built by Hyman S. Levin, a local theater mogul (no relation to Rabbi Levin). His 1975 obituary in this paper noted, “He came to San Francisco in 1905 and in 1908 opened his first nickelodeon, and shortly afterwards, the Vogue, which is still in operation. He and his sons operated theaters in many cities in the area.” (The Vogue is still running.)

The name was changed to the Empire Theater in 1936 and in 2003 it became CinéArts at the Empire under license to the Cinemark chain. Appleton’s family owned the theater, and he and a brother and friend bought them out when Cinemark left, the S.F. Chronicle reported in 2021.

The future situation of the theater is unclear, but for the next two years at least it will be home to the myriad activities that Chabad of the Neighborhood wants to do to welcome in the Jewish community. Levin said it’ll start with a seder on April 5.

The theater lobby will fully open as a Chabad center two weeks later, after some superficial renovations. It’ll have a Jewish library and be used to host Shabbat dinners, study groups and children’s activities, including a summer camp, Levin said. There’s nothing on the marquee yet, but Levin said it was like the property came with a free billboard.

It’ll also be a relief for him and his wife, Devorie, who have two young children.

Until now “we have been doing things in our apartment, which is down the block,” Levin said.

The couple opened Chabad of the Neighborhood in 2021, making it the seventh Chabad house in the city.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.