Noe Valley Voice October 2000

Orthodox Rabbi Opens a Noe Chabad House

By Steve Steinberg

There's a new rabbi in Noe Valley. His name is Gedaliah Potash, and he has opened a religious center for the neighborhood's Jewish residents in his house on Valley Street.

Potash is a member of the Lubavitch, an Orthodox Jewish sect that originated in Lithuania in the 18th century. The word Lubavitch comes from the name of a town in Lithuania that at one time served as the movement's center.

The Lubavitch are Hasidic Jews (from the Hebrew word hasid, meaning pious), part of an ultra-orthodox movement that emerged in Eastern Europe in response to persecution by Poles and Russian Cossacks in the 17th and 18th centuries. Hasidism is characterized by a more emotional and mystical approach to Judaism than is generally practiced by the religion's traditional branches. It has, says Rabbi Potash, a "more vibrant and excited style of worship, with a lot more singing and dancing."

Members of the Lubavitch go to various cities and countries and establish what are known as Chabad houses. San Francisco currently has three of them. (Chabad-Lubavitch is actually the full name of the sect, the word chabad being an acronym of the Hebrew words for wisdom, intelligence, and knowledge.)

At a Chabad house, the Sabbath (Saturday services) can be celebrated and Jewish roots strengthened. "We are dedicated," Potash says, "to spreading awareness of the warmth of Judaism and offering love and care to the individual." The Lubavitch movement does not, however, seek, to convert anyone to Judaism, but exists to serve those who are already Jewish. The organization has its world headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Recent Lubavitch history has been highlighted by the dynamic leadership of Menachem Schneerson, the Russian-born rabbi who headed the movement for 44 years. Said to have performed miracles, Schneerson vastly expanded the organization's influence and numbers, particularly in the United States.

Schneerson was so highly esteemed by his followers that toward the end of his life he was viewed as the Messiah promised by Jewish tradition. Even when he died in 1994 at the age of 92, without having revealed himself as the Messiah, Lubavitch followers refused to relinquish their beliefs concerning him. They have not appointed a new leader and are convinced that he will be resurrected and return as the Messiah. "He was such a godly person," says Potash.

Postash, 24, comes from a family of Lubavitch followers in England, where he was born and raised. His mother, feeling a need for greater spirituality, brought the family into the movement. Potash's father was already an Orthodox practitioner, but not a member of Lubavitch.

As a teenager, Potash says he always questioned the sect's precepts and teachings. Although he never actually rebelled, he did give his teachers and rabbis "a tough time." Ultimately, he says, it was his own personal decision to devote himself to the Lubavitch movement. He studied at yeshivas, Orthodox institutions of higher learning, in London, Australia, and New York, where he was ordained a rabbi in 1998. He wears a beard, a hat, and a black coat "as a sign of respect to God." Potash also has a brother and sister who have established Chabad houses in Tunisia and Panama, respectively.

Potash and his wife Leah brought their 7-month-old daughter, Mushky, to Noe Valley from New York at the end of July. Initially they stayed at Noe's Nest, a bed-and-breakfast lodging on 23rd Street. Potash also held his first services there.

The rabbi says he had no idea where he would live in San Francisco until he met the niece of the owner of Noe's Nest in New York shortly before he moved here. She suggested he contact her aunt. Potash sees the hand of God at work in this chance meeting, which enabled him to begin his mission in San Francisco. "Everything is divined," he says.

Potash had good fortune, or perhaps more divine help, in attracting fellow Jews to his first Sabbath celebration at Noe's Nest. In the Jewish religion, a congregation of at least 16 -- a quorum known as a minyan -- is required to perform the most important part of the service, the reading from the Torah, the five books of Moses.

At the beginning of the service, Potash only had 10 people in attendance. So he went out into the streets of Noe Valley to find more Jewish people to participate. He managed to gather the six needed to complete the ceremony.

Potash says he is generally very good at locating fellow Jews. "I can tell the way they respond." He sometimes goes through the phone book looking for Jewish names, and calls them to invite them to his services. He adds that the task is made easier in a liberal city like San Francisco.

In September, Potash and his family moved to a rented house at 360 Valley St., which he made his official Chabad House. (Even though it is a private residence and not a synagogue, the house can still hold religious ceremonies under the Orthodox tradition.)

The services are conducted in both Hebrew and English. "We want to make it comfortable and welcoming to [those who are] familiar and unfamiliar with Jewish ritual," he says, adding, "God understands all languages."

Orthodox Jews generally go to synagogue three times a day for prayer (Potash frequently attends a synagogue in the Richmond District), and it is possible that the Noe Valley Chabad House will be able to offer weekday services in the future.

But for now the main activity at the Valley Street house is the Saturday Sabbath or Shabbat service, along with a Friday-night Sabbath dinner. (The Jewish Sabbath extends from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday.) Potash also offers classes on an individual basis in a variety of Jewish subjects, from Hebrew to cabala -- Jewish mysticism. Potash is also conducting High Holiday services -- Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur -- at Edison School, 22nd and Dolores streets. Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown on Sept. 29, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, at sundown on Oct. 8.

Thus far, Postash says he has received very positive feedback from the local Jewish community regarding his mission. He feels there is an interest in the neighborhood for more Jewish activities. Potash started the Noe Valley Chabad House with a grant from the Lubavitch central organization. Eventually, though, he will have to depend on contributions from the local members to maintain his operation.

Meanwhile, he hopes his work in Noe Valley will help more Jews "realize the beauty of the tradition they belong to."

All Jews are welcome at the Noe Valley Chabad House. For more information, call Rabbi Gedaliah Potash at 821-7046.