Tacos, pups and prayer: Local synagogues offer tradition with a twist

Once a month, San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Israel Judea welcomes Shabbat with a service of drumming and singing.

Each spring, Temple Emanu-El in San Jose designates a weekend for “Paws Shabbat,” inviting congregants to bring their animals.

On the first Friday of the month, a taco truck appears outside San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El so congregants can enjoy a post-service supper.

Outdoor services are held every Friday evening in July and August at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills. “A lot of people find a spiritual connection with nature,” says Rabbi Sarah Wolf. photo/sterling haidt

Shabbat services do not have to be conventional for learning and fun to take place. Accompanied by drumming or even barking, Bay Area Shabbat services offer many options to those who wish to connect with their spiritual side.

Rosalind Glazer, the former rabbi of Beth Israel Judea who started the monthly drum services several years ago, said it has become more common for congregations to offer varied choices. The drum service features a number of musicians and singers, including cantorial soloist David Morgenstern.

Designed for Jews with a minimal or nontraditional religious background, the service includes clergy-led meditation and chanting. Glazer said the idea was to help Jews who want to connect with Judaism without feeling overwhelmed.

Morgenstern agreed. “I think that certainly here at Congregation Beth Israel Judea, we recognize that there are different constituencies within the congregation, and we try our best to approach them in different ways,” he said.

Glazer called the Shabbat service a “jewel in the calendar” for the synagogue. “This [service] really stuck, and I think that not only is it a gift to the shul, but it’s really been a gift to the San Francisco Jewish community.”

Rabbi Dana Magat (front) and Cantor Meeka Simerly lead the annual “Paws Shabbat” service at San Jose Temple Emanu-El.

The services are on the fourth Friday each month, with the next one scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 23. It will be led by the synagogue’s new rabbi, Danny Gottleib, whose tenure began Aug. 1.

Glazer — who is now on sabbatical, studying and traveling — said although some people are skeptical, she believes new approaches help reach new constituencies.

She said a number of synagogues, particularly Reform congregations, offer alternative services on a regular basis “because people don’t just come for the liturgy. You have to give them value or they’re not going to come, especially in a city like San Francisco, where you can do so many things on any given night.”

It’s not just in San Francisco. Temple Emanu-El in San Jose dedicates a weekend each year to pets, welcoming animals to services. The goal of “Paws Shabbat” is to celebrate the importance of animals in people’s lives.

“We are an animal-loving congregation,” Cantor Meeka Simerly said. “We really do understand the essence of what it is to be around animals. They are loved beings by God.”

Friday’s service is indoors, and Saturday’s is outside. Most people bring dogs, although someone once brought a turtle to the service, which includes special prayers related to animals.

Simerly, an avowed animal-lover, created “Paws Shabbat” two years ago with support from Emanu-El Rabbi Dana Magat.

Debbie Fier (left) and Susannah Goldenstein participate in monthly Shabbat drum services Aug. 26 at Congregation Beth Israel Judea in San Francisco. photo/chris stevens

While it’s fun for people to bring their animals, Simerly said, there is a deeper purpose. “It’s a learning experience because we really educate people how important it is to treat every living being with respect.”

Food has long been a gateway to Jewish involvement. At San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El, the oneg Shabbat menu for the opening day of baseball may include hot dogs, cotton candy and beer.

“Ultimately, the goal of Judaism is to be with one another and connect with one another,” said Rabbi Ryan Bauer. Multiple avenues provide multiple paths.

The San Buena taco truck, normally seen in the Financial District during the week, is parked outside Emanu-El on the first Friday night of the month, feeding hungry congregants after the 7:30 p.m. service.

“A lot of people come when we do the taco truck, and it’s a good way for people to connect and meet each other,” Bauer said.

Normally sponsored by a member of the synagogue, the taco truck has become a popular draw. Bauer said 200 to 300 people usually attend services when the truck appears, and they don’t object to the long lines to get their food.

“We thought we needed more people in the truck to make the line go faster,” Bauer said, “and we immediately heard from people that no one wanted more people in the truck. They wanted a slow line. It wasn’t really about the tacos, which we knew. It was about them getting to know each other.”

Other area clergy agree that togetherness is the key to connecting with Judaism.

A taco truck parks outside Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco the first Friday of every month to feed congregants after the Shabbat service.

“Within the Jewish community there are different avenues toward experiencing God’s presence in our lives,” said Rabbi Philip Ohriner of Congregation Beth David in Saratoga. “People look for different pathways to find their connection to Judaism. Having different services helps with that process.”

Beth David throws an annual end-of-summer “BBQ and Barkhu,” and about 150 to 200 people gather for dinner and services. This year’s event was Aug. 26. Ohriner said the service brings people of all ages together.

“I think the uniqueness of the event is that it’s truly multigenerational,” he said. “From our young families to our seniors … and every affiliate group of the congregation, [they all come] together to share a meal as a community and to experience Shabbat together. I think that’s the best part of the event.”

Ohriner cited “a growing trend to try and create multiple entry points for Jews [to get] into religious life. Part of that is providing different types of prayer experience.”

In Los Altos Hills, Congregation Beth Am holds Shabbat services outdoors at 6:15 p.m. every Friday during July and August.

“There are people who make a special effort to come during the summer because [services are] outdoors,” Rabbi Sarah Wolf said.

Wolf said the congregation takes a moment to appreciate the surrounding nature and feel gratitude for living in such a beautiful area.

“We want to take advantage of it,” Wolf said. “We like to be connected to the natural world. A lot of people find a spiritual connection with nature. I think it’s helpful for a lot of people to get that frame of mind.”

While it’s good to have “special attractions” before, during or after a service, Wolf said the goal is the same: to connect with Judaism. “It’s fun to try new things.”


Cover photo by Sterling Haidt