Five shuls in two days — Happy Rosh Hashanah!

Happy New Year. After eight years in New York City and New Jersey, where I made the rounds at many prayer communities, I’ve come to San Francisco for a new job at J.

So this week, I did a little shul-hopping, on assignment. And by “a little,” I mean I crammed five stops into Rosh Hashanah, and I’ll be visiting two more shuls (at least) on Yom Kippur. For now I’m limiting my trips to my new city of San Francisco. I’ll venture out beyond the city later on, I promise.

My findings so far:

Sept. 13: Erev Rosh Hashanah

Sherith Israel (Reform)

I came for the architecture, and in that regard, Congregation Sherith Israel did not disappoint. The 1905 sanctuary is both warm and cavernous, with a tremendous, surprisingly high dome. Everywhere, detail: reds, golds, blues. The bimah is stage-like with red carpet; towering over it is a mass of beautifully rich wood, a choir loft and a grand pipe organ, still in use.

Interior of Sherith Israel

The highlight of this magnificent interior, which I chose my balcony seat to get a good view of, is the huge stained-glass “Moses Presenting the Ten Commandments to the Children of Israel.” This piece, visible from Webster Street on Sherith’s western side, sets the scene at Yosemite, with Half Dome and El Capitan visible in the distance.

This sanctuary is like a museum piece. And the service was, too. Look, don’t touch. Listen, don’t sing. Don’t get me wrong: If what you want from the High Holy Days is soaring, operatic music, supported by a professional choir and accompanists, there is no more beautiful place to experience it. But if you’d like to participate in your worship, rather than having the professionals take care of it, this is not the place for you.

Two Argentinean cantors were brought in, I suppose, to spice things up. But the style and register of their leadership made congregational participation impossible. At one point, they made hand motions graciously inviting the congregation to join in on the wordless refrain of Hashkiveinu, but few took them up on the offer.

The highlight of the service was the sermon. Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller began with an anecdote she’d recently heard from a Holocaust survivor. When she hears stories like that, she said, she often wonders what she would do when faced with such injustice. But, she pointed out, she doesn’t have to wonder because, as illustrated by #BlackLivesMatter and the battle over prison reform, we are faced with systemic injustice in the here and now.

Here is a synagogue that takes seriously its commitment to social justice: a reply card handed out during the sermon asked congregants to commit to helping with Sherith Israel’s social justice campaigns.

And then there was the closing song, “Adon Olam,” presented as if it were the final number of a Broadway show. Cantors, band and choir were going at full, swollen tilt — the most sing-alongiest song in the Jewish canon rendered as loud spectacle.

Sept. 14: Rosh Hashanah, Day 1

Beth Sholom (Conservative)

Out of one architectural marvel and into another! When I arrived around 9 a.m., the hardiest souls at Congregation Beth Sholom — those who actually showed up on time, in highly un-Conservative-like fashion — were just making their way out of the small ground-level chapel, up the courtyard stairs and into the main sanctuary.

Beth Sholom

The sanctuary structure is literally iconic — a simplified version of the upside-down half-circle profile visible from 14th Avenue is a prominent element in the congregation’s logo. Inside, seating is arranged like Parliament, except that the facing rows of seating are on a steeper grade. I would advise against venturing into the highest seats if you struggle with balance. Another unique feature of this sanctuary: There is nowhere to hide, nowhere to sit where you can’t be seen from half the other seats.

The service was typical of urban Conservative congregations today, with a lot of nusach (traditional chanted melodies), some piyyutim (liturgical poems), and, as Beth Sholom was armed for the first time this year with the Conservative movement’s excellent 2010 Mahzor Lev Shalem, the very occasional reading. The crowd was mostly middle age and up, with a few younger adults. Many women wore kippot. Some men wore kitels (white robes), as did a few women.

As the service rolled on, more families with small kids arrived. When we split into two groups at the beginning of the Torah service, I was surprised that more of them didn’t join us in “the Koret service,” so named because it takes place in Koret Hall. It was led gently and beautifully by Aviva Chernick, Toronto-based singer from the band Jaffa Road. She is a wonderful example of a prayer leader with performing chops who is nonetheless gifted at bringing people along with her, getting them to join her in song.

She started off with a bright melodic chant for “chadesh yameinu k’kedem” (“renew our days”), which became something of a refrain throughout the service and is now stuck in my head. All the aliyot were group aliyot, open to anyone to whom various themes applied: those taking care of someone ill, those who need more joy in their lives, etc. Each group gathered under a chuppah-like canopy.

I wish I could have stayed longer and sang along with more of Chernick’s music. But just as Musaf began, I had to hop off to my next shul.

Keneset HaLev (independent)

A group of perhaps 40 gathered in a multi-purpose room of the San Francisco County Fair Building at Golden Gate Park for this havurah-style/Renewal-ish service. On its website, Keneset HaLev bills itself as an “independent, post-denominational, heart-centered and mystical” Jewish spiritual community.

We sat in institutional stacking chairs. Bits of blue painter’s tape held five Tibetan-style prayer flags adorned with hamsas over the door. A crocheted ark — held up and given form by an assemblage of PVC pipes — sat on a table in one corner.

Our leader was Jonathan Furst, a maggid (storyteller) with an abundance of earnest enthusiasm. He was assisted at various times by a motley crew of regulars. The disheveled Furst’s moderately frenzied attitude was matched by the charming, omnipresent hum of low-level chaos that made this service feel so warm and loving.

There was a bring-your-own-instruments policy; though I saw many around the room, there was just this one lady shaking maracas periodically. There was more than one barefoot davener, including Furst.

When I arrived, they were in the throes of a soulful “Avinu Malkeinu” (Our Father, Our King), alternating those words with a feminist variation, “Imeinu Rachameinu” (Our Mother, Our Compassionate One). After singing it with the traditional melody, we flipped the page of our stapled-together homegrown machzors and sang it again to the tune of Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” complete with the English refrain, “knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door.” The folks here were loving every moment, as the singing of the congregation itself — not the leaders — was louder than in my two previous hops combined.

The Torah service, which included only three aliyot, was read one verse at a time, with pauses between each for extemporaneous translations. For the third aliyah, we all crowded around the Torah to say the blessing and read the Shema and Veahavta paragraph together. We concluded by pushing all the chairs to the side and gathering around four shofar-blowers.

I had planned to stay for what promised to be a wonderful tashlich in Golden Gate Park. But it was drizzling (“It’s raining! We did it!” exclaimed one attendee) by the end of the lovely vegetarian potluck, so I left.

Sept. 15: Rosh Hashanah, Day 2

Adath Israel (Modern Orthodox)

The most important man in the room at Congregation Adath Israel was this guy up at the front. He was positioned near a tripod that held up a board with metal rings looped through numbered cards, like a youth league scoreboard. It was for keeping track of the page number in the machzor. He was on the ball the whole time (save for a particularly long and vigorous piyyut, during which he left us hanging for three pages).

God bless that guy — and not just because he also kindly gave me an ark-opening honor. I’m embarrassed to say this was my first experience at a “standard” Ashkenazi Orthodox shul, and I was worried that I’d feel out of place and have trouble following the service. It turns out that my experiences with traditional egalitarian communities back East were almost sufficient preparation — except for the noticeable lack of women’s voices, by which I was jarred all day, both here and at my next hop.

Rabbi Joel Landau has an immense voice. It’s rich, but more than that, it’s just plain huge. It fills the room. He led the service with the expected traditional Ashkenazi nusach in its signature register of plaintive longing. This music has vitality; though most of it is not participatory, the pose of the prayer leader in settings like this says much: By facing away from us, in the same direction we are facing, he becomes not a performer but a leader and representative.

Some of the service is participatory; both leader and congregant have well-defined musical roles. Congregants are familiar enough with the proceedings that they need no prodding when one of their moments comes. They simply utter — or chaotically shout, as often as not — the appropriate lines at the appropriate times.

By the time I left, there were around 80 people, perhaps more, in attendance. About a third of them were women, sequestered on the other side of the mechitza. In this long sanctuary, with its straight rows of front-facing seats and wall of vibrantly colorful stained glass, the wooden half-wall mechitza runs down the middle. Women easily lean over to touch the Torah as men carry it past. One or two casual chats were had over the mechitza.

And yet, as much as I enjoyed my morning here, the gender barrier weighed on me. I’ve prayed with a mechitza before, and it always weighs on me, reminding me to include the imahot (the biblical matriarchs) as I mumble my way through the Amidah.

Magain David (Sephardic)

You go through the front door of Magain David Sephardim Congregation, immediately to the right and up a narrow staircase (women to the left), and suddenly you’ve arrived. In the front of the room. And everyone’s looking at you.

Magain David

After shaking that off, and having to walk through the middle of everything to find a seat, I looked around and was pleasantly surprised by the charmingly lived-in and beautifully lit sanctuary. There are windows along the sides with flowing, transparent lace curtains. A brilliant blue stained-glass Star of David (the congregation’s namesake) is radiant over the carved, modern-style wooden ark, and 15 (I counted) chandeliers of varying size and shape hang overhead.

The sanctuary is laid out in the Sephardic style: a centrally located and ark-facing bimah, with seats facing in toward it. Also Sephardic-style, the walls are hung with a mishmash of framed posters of assorted prayers, kabbalistic word schematics, etc.

I arrived just in time for the end of the Torah service. Three of the congregation’s marvelous Torah scrolls were standing on the bimah. While Ashkenazi Torah scrolls are unrolled from two loose poles and laid down on a table to read, Sephardic scrolls are kept rolled up inside large, ornately decorated cases that open in half along a hinge to reveal the parchment inside, which is read from while the whole thing remains vertically standing. The system is more practical, way cool and always exciting to see.

The low point of the service was the visiting rabbi’s sermon, an unfocused, general-purpose circle-the-wagons message of stock Jewish paranoia. It began with: Oy, what a year the world has had; refugees in Europe got a mention; BDS was singled out as one of the year’s breakout evils; and there was a longish, not even remotely timely tangent about the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” in Lower Manhattan, which is neither a mosque nor at Ground Zero. (He was against it.)

In decorum and overall atmosphere, Magain David is not dissimilar to Adath Israel. However, my unfamiliarity with the cadence and style of the music, even the pronunciation, often made it difficult for me to follow along.

The voices of the 10 or so women, out of about 50 total in attendance, were, again, jarringly missing. The women’s section, a cramped-looking slice of the right side of the room, was right next to my seat, but I heard not a peep from it. Instead of the familiar longing of Ashkenazi nusach I heard at Adath, here was an Eastern sound, no less longing, but wandering, wailing at times. I liked it. I couldn’t always follow it, but I liked it.

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is the digital editor of J. He can be reached at [email protected].