This year, there is going to be a new, uniquely San Franciscan way to count the Omer.
It turns out that the city is perfectly designed for the Jewish commandment to count the 49 days between the second day of Passover and Shavuot. That’s because it just so happens that San Francisco has 49 consecutively numbered avenues (including, for purposes of the project, Arguello and Great Highway) in its Richmond and Sunset districts.
When Yeashore Community’s maggid Jeff Haas and his friend, educator Reuben Politi, noticed this coincidence a couple of months ago, they saw an opportunity to design a project that would literally bring Jews onto the streets to observe the mitzvah of counting the Omer together.
The two men organized the Omer Project, an initiative that is equally about counting the days between the two holidays and getting out the message to Jews, across all denominations and beyond, that their presence counts.
The group has scheduled a festive and educational Omer counting gathering every evening of the 49-day period at a street corner on the numerically corresponding avenue. As much as possible, the gatherings will take place in front of or near a synagogue or other Jewish institution located in the Richmond or Sunset districts.
One gathering this week, for example, was at the corner of Second Avenue and Lincoln Way. On Tuesday, April 2, the location is Eighth Avenue at Fulton Street.
“There are a total of 22 synagogues and organizations located in those neighborhoods, so we are hoping to get more confirmations in the upcoming days,” Haas said late last week. “We are hoping to be able to organize a gathering for each evening during the Omer period, but at the very least we will have one on the first day of each of the seven weeks.”
So far, 11 congregations and organizations have signed on, including Chabad of Cole Valley, Hebrew Academy, Young Israel, Yeashore Community, and congregations Anshey Sfard, Beth Israel Judea, Ner Tamid, Or Shalom and B’nai Emunah.
Haas explained that following kabbalistic tradition, each week is dedicated to one of the seven lower sefirot, or emanations of “The Infinite.” Each day of each week is also dedicated to one of the same sefirot, thus creating 49 permutations. A teaching on these kabbalistic ideas will be part of each of the gatherings.
Rain or shine, those gathered will sing songs, read psalms and recite blessings. A story about a biblical character related to the sefirot of the day will also be shared.
Haas plans to rotate the leadership of each meeting, which will last 45 minutes to an hour, between himself and clergy from the hosting congregations. “And, of course, since this is a Jewish event, we’ll also have some snacks and shmoozing,” he added.
Rabbi Danny Gottlieb of Beth Israel Judea is excited about the potential for the Omer Project to encourage community participation. He also likes its cross-denominational and inclusive nature. “It’s really a wonderful idea,” he said.
“The Omer period connects between the move from slavery to freedom and the receiving of the Torah. It’s a transition from freedom to the embracing of mitzvot and working toward achieving God’s will,” the rabbi explained. “So I see this project as a way of heightening awareness of the Omer period and getting more people involved in this transition.”
Haas explained that the counting of the Omer also relates to the 50 Gates of Understanding alluded to in the Talmud. Each of the first 49 gates is opened by humans during the counting of the Omer, and each gate represents a character trait humans can improve upon as we prepare for the receiving of the Torah. On the 50th day, Shavuot, God opens the last gate and reveals the Torah.
As Haas and Politi humorously mention on the project’s website, it is hard not to wonder whether God might have been on the city’s planning commission.
The Torah has been symbolically referred to as an ocean, and those who join one or several Omer Project gatherings will be moving westward, evening-by-evening, avenue-by-avenue, until they reach the Pacific.
The Omer Project gatherings will begin between 7:30 and 8:30 p.m., depending on the time of sunset. For more details and a schedule, visit www.omerproject.com.