Feast offers a second helping of Jewish learning, celebration

When three stars appear in the sky on Saturday, Feb. 17, 300 Jews — holding braided candles and singing songs — will fill the band shell of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.

Touted as the largest havdallah celebration in the Bay Area ever, the short evening service, which begins at 6:30 p.m., marks not only the end of the Sabbath but also the conclusion of the second Feast of Jewish Learning.

Sponsored by the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education, the Feb. 10 through 17 Feast highlights a week of formal and informal Jewish education opportunities around the Bay Area.

Several special events are planned, including the communitywide havdallah, followed by a 7:30 p.m. sky show at the Academy of Science's Morrison Planetarium.

Havdallah is the perfect opportunity for learning about both Judaism and astronomy, according to Howard Freedman, coordinator of the BJE's Battat Education Resource Center.

"Before beginning the havdallah ceremony, we go outdoors to search for the appearance of three stars in the sky, which indicates that night has fallen and Shabbat has ended," Freedman explained. "This act makes us particularly conscious of the way that the spiritual life of Judaism is tied integrally with the natural world.

"It reinforces our understanding of the way in which the cycle of daily prayers and the Jewish calendar were designed to coincide with the movement of the moon and sun."

With a focus on the havdallah celebration, this year's Feast of Jewish learning includes everything from Hebrew language classes and Jewish tales of the supernatural to interfaith couples' workshops and Israeli dancing.

A weeklong calendar of BJE-sponsored events includes authors' nights for kids and adults, lunch and learn sessions, and havdallah activities throughout the Bay Area.

Kerin Lieberman, associate director of the BJE and Feast steering committee chair, said, "The Feast really just shines a spotlight on Jewish education and the number of opportunities available at any one time."

Last year's Feast won the S.F.-based Jewish Federation's Program of Distinction award. Rabbis and educators noted enrollment in some classes and workshops jumped nearly 30 percent that week.

During the 1995 Feast, focused on the theme of Shabbat, Bay Area congregations, organizations and individual families shared a Friday evening meal with Jews who do not regularly observe the Sabbath.

This year, seven congregations and organizations will host havdallah celebrations on Saturday, Feb. 10. Each short service will have a distinct flavor — the Jewish Community Federation's Young Adults Division's celebration will focus on mysticism. San Francisco Congregation Beth Israel-Judea's will take on a more social tone, with the addition of spaghetti and bingo.

The Feb. 17 Golden Gate Park havdallah and sky show at the planetarium are free, thanks to underwriting by the Milton and Sophie Meyer Fund and sponsorship by the BJE and the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California. However, seats are limited to 300 and reservations are requested. Moon- and star-shaped cookies and beverages will be served at the planetarium.

Because the ultimate goal of the Feast is increased Jewish learning and involvement, everyone attending the event will receive a complimentary havdallah kit to help families celebrate at home.

Put together by children in the after-school programs at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, the kits include havdallah candles, spice boxes made by the kids, and a booklet and audio tape of prayers, songs and activities.