“God is not a cosmic traffic cop.” The sentence rang through my brain. I was hot, tired and hungry, but the compelling words of Rabbi Avram Davis at Nistar Yeshiva’s Jewish Renewal Yom Kippur service kept pulling me back in to the discussion at hand.
In his sermon, Davis focused on change and forgiveness — that humans are capable of transforming, and we are not being hawk-eyed by some angry being from above.
It made me think beyond my own inner struggles. More than anything, it gave me a peaceful evening of respite away from all the negative thoughts crowding my head.
Just hours before the service began, I’d found myself anxiously counting down the minutes until my mother’s arrival. I’d been in a crummy mood all morning, and couldn’t wait to spend the weekend with my own flesh and blood.
On paper, my lookalike mom and I were never the best Jewish ambassadors, with her morning predilection for crispy bacon and my tattoos. But we’ve always been advocates for family, holidays and, usually, Jewish food.
Fresh from Orange County, Mom was set to touch down in San Francisco around noon. It was our first time observing Yom Kippur together, just the two of us, without our usual gang of wonderful San Diego relatives.
It felt like there was no map for what we should do, no precedent for this time together. So, as those situations tend to go in life, it was both exciting and nerve-wracking.
It was up to me to find the appropriate service for us to attend. I scoured j.’s High Holy Days listings and picked a service that sounded interesting.
That’s how we stumbled on Nistar’s outstanding, and completely free, Yom Kippur service. If you’ve never heard of Nistar, it’s because the group has only recently come together. Its founders felt San Francisco needed a renewal congregation.
Nistar’s first service as a group was Rosh Hashanah, which, along with its other High Holy Days services, took place on the fourth floor of the Baha’i Faith Center, a rented facility on Valencia Street in San Francisco.
Rabbi Daniel Lev and melamed (teacher) Garry Koenigsberg joined Davis in leading the services. There also was musical accompaniment from a handful of talented Jewish musicians.
When my mother and I first entered, there were scattered families and young adults milling about, waiting for the service to start. By the time the rabbis gathered in front, just after 7 p.m., the room was stuffed — more than 200 people.
Koenigsberg said the turnout was “beyond the upper reaches of my wildest expectations.”
While the group sang many traditional songs and read traditional prayers (in both English and Hebrew), the rabbis’ banter was modern shtick.
In between prayers, Davis wandered the aisles, explaining, with bright eyes, the importance of forgiveness and change, renewal. He took turns referring to God in the feminine and masculine. He asked modern day rhetorical questions — “What if things really do seem to suck?”— and kept the mood light.
“It was a blend of humor, motivation, piousness and unity,” my mother later commented.
Together, mom and I fumbled through liturgy, sang, and clapped excitedly along to the music. I caught sentimental tears in her eyes.
She was raised in a Reform family in Los Angeles, but had attended synagogue only sporadically since my bat mitzvah. The music brought her right back to her childhood, she said. But it also brought her someplace she’d never been before. She said Nistar’s service “removed the mystery and seriousness from temple.”
It seems like Nistar is off to a great start. The organizers are not intending to charge for future services. Meaning they are funded almost entirely on donations.
The group is attempting to settle permanently in the Baha’i Center and, starting Friday, Oct. 1, will begin hosting Shabbat services on the first Friday and third Saturday of every month.
Emily Savage can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about Nistar Yeshiva, visit www.nistar.org.