When I arrived at 6:50 a.m. for morning minyan at Congregation Beth Sholom, a long-bearded homeless man was asleep in part of the main doorway. More on him later.
San Francisco is home to about a dozen egalitarian congregations, yet Beth Sholom, a Conservative synagogue in the Inner Richmond, is the only one that provides the essential community service of a daily minyan. I say it’s essential because of the Jewish practice of saying Kaddish daily for 11 months after the passing of a loved one, a practice more common among liberal, egalitarian Jews than one might assume.
There are plenty of daily minyans provided by Chabad and Orthodox communities in San Francisco. But say a woman wants to count in that minyan. A liberal daily minyan is needed for female mourners who wish to fulfill this mitzvah not from behind a mechitza.
After the service, when bagels and coffee are served, I met a woman who’d been coming to say Kaddish for almost 11 months. Approaching the end of the Kaddish period, she now looks forward to starting her morning this way — so much so that she may remain a regular when the 11 months are up.
Held in the warm and lovely small sanctuary, Beth Sholom’s weekday Shacharit (morning service) is a no-nonsense affair that lasts little more than an hour. The regulars are mostly middle-age and older, a mix of men and women. Most wear tefillin, but a few do not. They are a friendly bunch and, excited by the appearance of any new face, greeted me warmly.
There was some concern about making a minyan in time, but there was, as it turned out, no need for worry. By the end of the first page of the service, we were 10. And by the time the Torah service started, we were 16.
The bulk of the service was lay-led by a member of the community in straightforward fashion — exactly what one wants at 7 a.m. when the promise of post-service bagels beckons.
Once the Torah service began, Rabbi Aubrey Glazer took over. His choice of tunes toward the end of the service — Aleinu, etc. — was less mainstream and more Renewal, including the Nava Tehila community’s version of “Oseh Shalom” I mentioned in my Feb. 5 column. The psalm Ashrei was led by a very competent pre-bar mitzvah boy.
I took the Torah service as an opportunity to look around. The feel of this small chapel benefits from the inclusion of stained-glass windows from the sanctuary in Beth Sholom’s previous building.
But while the windows make it a colorful, vibrant space, the choice of subject matter in the stained glass is peculiar. Of course, there are the standards: a menorah, the high priest’s breastplate, etc. A depiction of the tablets of the Ten Commandments is more interesting than usual because it features the ancient Paleo-Hebrew script, rather than the Hebrew letterforms we are familiar with now. But next to that is something I’ve never seen in a synagogue before — Napoleon in his iconic military dress standing next to a scroll that proclaims in large Latin characters: “LIBERTE, EGALITE, FRATERNITE.”
On the other side of the room, a famous photo of the groundbreaking on Hebrew University in Jerusalem is impressionistically reproduced in stained glass next to the figure of what I assume is a Mandate-era British soldier.
Honestly, a trip to this synagogue is worth it for the idiosyncratic stained glass alone.
Later in the service, I walked over to examine a bookcase near the entrance closest to the synagogue’s front doors. I was drawn to its assortment of prayerbooks, but then realized with a start that from this vantage point I could look to my right and clearly see the homeless man, now awake, while also seeing all the action of the service in progress to my left. Some righteous soul, I noticed, had provided the man with breakfast, which he sat on the ground eating. Still, I wasn’t sure what to think of the mix of sights to my left and right.
As the Torah was dressed and made its return to the ark, we sang a favorite tune of mine: “Mishe-mishe-mishe-mishe-mishe-mishe-mishe-mishe-mishenichnas Adar marbim b’simcha,” an upbeat ditty based on the talmudic adage, “When Adar comes in, we increase our joy.” This refers to the current Hebrew month of Adar’s status as the home of Purim, our most raucously joyous holiday.
Speaking of which, Glazer had a few words to say about Purim, particularly matanot l’evyonim, the requirement to give charitably to the poor on Purim, enough for a meal. “You may have noticed we have a friend sitting out front this morning,” he said, referring to the homeless man. We already made sure he has a little something to eat, the rabbi said, but “it’s also an opportunity to give some tzedakah this morning.”
Alas, by the time I left the rabbi’s post-service Torah study, the man was gone.
Congregation Beth Sholom holds its daily minyan at 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Sundays, and 5 p.m. Saturdays. 301 14th Ave., San Francisco
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