Barbara Cymrot, pictured in the Castro District of San Francisco, was one of the first parents to join Sha'ar Zahav, San Francisco's LGBTQ synagogue. (Aaron-Levy Wolins/J. Staff)
Barbara Cymrot, pictured in the Castro District of San Francisco, was one of the first parents to join Sha'ar Zahav, San Francisco's LGBTQ synagogue. (Aaron-Levy Wolins/J. Staff)

LGBTQ synagogue Sha’ar Zahav, once reluctant to welcome children, embraces its third generation

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Updated June 28

When Congregation Sha’ar Zahav opened its doors to San Francisco’s queer Jewish community in 1977, the Reform synagogue’s membership consisted exclusively of adults.

That began to change in the 1980s, and by 1988, the synagogue had established a religious school to educate children. But it wasn’t a smooth transition.

“This is a gay synagogue. We’re not going to have children [here],” Tiela Chalmers, who joined Sha’ar Zahav in the early ’80s, recalled several older gay lay leaders saying at the time. “There was actually a discussion: Are we going to allow children in the synagogue?”

Children would be painful reminders of what those men couldn’t have, according to Rabbi Mychal Copeland, the synagogue’s current leader.

“It was specifically due to the pain at not being able to bear children themselves,” she said. “Many gay men were shunned by Jewish communities and families in part because they wouldn’t be able to observe the all-important commandment ‘pru urvu,’ being fruitful and multiplying.”

In addition, some gay members objected to having to pay dues to support a school that would serve the two dozen families blessed with biological or adopted children, current members said in interviews.

These conversations were taking place against the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic, which was devastating the LGBTQ community. By the end of the 1990s, about 100 people in the synagogue community had died of AIDS, according to Rabbi Yoel Kahn, who led the synagogue from 1985 to 1996.

Amid so much loss, however, the number of member families with children steadily increased through the early ’90s, as the LGBTQ community grew more open and assertive about their identities. Meanwhile, more queer people were choosing to adopt or have children through artificial insemination, which was becoming more mainstream. 

“I just said: There’s a flood behind me. There’s an avalanche. You guys haven’t seen anything yet,” said Barbara Cymrot, who joined the synagogue in 1994 with her then-partner Dafna Wu and their 9-year-old daughter Ruby. 

An undated photo of a packed school program at Sha’ar Zahav. (Courtesy)

Kahn, who with his husband adopted their son, Adam, in 1991, said the congregation was more than capable of embracing everyone. 

“Just as it was our responsibility to take care of our members who were dying, it was also our responsibility to take care of our children in the next generation,” Kahn said.

Today, the Hebrew expression “l’dor vador” — from generation to generation — is very much at the heart of Sha’ar Zahav’s ethos. Some of the children who grew up attending its school, Kadimah, and becoming a b’mitzvah there have returned as adults. (B’mitzvah is the gender-neutral term that some congregations, including Sha’ar Zahav, now use for the ceremony.)

Morey Lipsett, 26, is a product of the school, now called Beit Sefer Phyllis Mintzer in memory of its first teacher. Now as a gay adult, he has become a synagogue member in his own right.

“In college I had somewhat of a queer Jewish community that I had developed,” Lipsett said. “That was really important to me, and so that’s what made me want to return.”

An undated photo of Phyllis Mintzer, the first teacher at Sha’ar Zahav’s religious school. (Courtesy)

He began attending services there in 2019 and took on the role of recorder on the synagogue board in 2023. He’s currently completing his Ph.D. at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union with a focus on queer Judaism.

Jim Frazin, 77, joined Sha’ar Zahav in 1991, shortly after coming out as bisexual. He and his partner had separated a few years prior, and his son was approaching bar mitzvah age. In 1994, his son, Ethan, became one of the first bar mitzvahs at Sha’ar Zahav. 

Fifteen years later, Frazin wanted another child, specifically a daughter this time. Through the Jewish dating site JDate, he met a woman with a 5-month-old daughter, and Frazin legally became her father. “I was thrilled!” Frazin said.

Nearly three decades after his son’s bar mitzvah, Frazin celebrated again as his daughter, Amelia, became a b’mitzvah at Sha’ar Zahav in 2022. Now 15, Amelia is one of five teen classroom “madrichimot,” a gender-neutral term for helpers, at the religious school, which had 28 students enrolled in the 2023-2024 academic year.

“It pretty much encompasses three generations,” Frazin said of himself, a baby boomer, his son, a millennial, and his daughter, a member of Generation Z.

Jim Frazin has been a member of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav since 1991. (Aaron-Levy Wolins/J. Staff)

Frazin is also a grandparent thanks to his son. Other longtime Sha’ar Zahav members have been welcoming grandchildren into their lives too.

Cymrot, who conceived her three daughters through artificial insemination, is the proud bubbe to a 4-year-old grandson. 

“He’s just the light of my life,” she said. “I love that kid.”

Chalmers, who served as Sha’ar Zahav’s president from 1993 to 1995, became a first-time grandmother when her grandson was born in May. That same month, Deborah Levy, who joined the synagogue in 2001, also became a grandmother. 

“I hope and I think that as the baby gets older and can stay with me that I can bring the baby with me to tot Shabbat,” said Levy, who is finishing up her two-year term as president this month.

Sha’ar Zahav has also embraced the idea of chosen family since its beginning.

Members of the recently formed Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in June 1979 during the “San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade.” (Joe Altman/Courtesy California Historical Society)

Martin Tannenbaum and his husband, Alex Ingersoll, do not have biological children. But Tannenbaum said he considers the five children he has mentored over the years in preparation for their b’mitzvahs as an extension of his family.

“We’ve been invited to seders with families and graduations and things,” he said. “We’ve been included as family.”

The b’mitzvah program pairs each child with a volunteer synagogue mentor who helps them prepare. Cymrot said many of the mentors are men who back in the ’80s had resisted welcoming children to the synagogue. They’ve since apologized, she said.

“Every single one has come up to me and said, ‘Being a mentor to the kids, it’s like the most important thing in my life,’” she said.

Tannenbaum meets one on one each week with his mentees for roughly 18 months ahead of their b’mitzvah. He helps them prepare to chant their Torah and haftarah portions, lead services and deliver a drash. He also tries to help them explore their own notions of Judaism and God. 

“It’s so rewarding for everyone,” he said of the mentorship program.

Both Tannenbaum and Kahn noted that at Sha’ar Zahav, l’dor vador means that the congregation has a role in raising different types of children, whether that child is a young person who finds their way there or is a member family’s newborn.

“There always were two [kinds of] younger generations coming up at Sha’ar Zahav that the congregation felt it had a responsibility for,” Kahn said. “Mentoring and adopting and taking care of the younger queer folk who found their way to our doors was one kind of parenting the congregation had responsibility for. And the other was raising our children.”

Correction, June 28: An earlier version of this article and a photo caption misidentified Phyllis Mintzer as the founder of Sha’ar Zahav’s religious school. It was founded in 1988 under Rabbi Yoel Kahn.

Update, June 26: This article was updated to include comment from Rabbi Mychal Copeland.

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Emma Goss.(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.