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Passover Seders Draw Large Crowds
By Corrie M. Anders
On Friday nights, several dozen Jewish worshipers generally show up for the Shabbat services that Beyt Tikkun hosts at the Noe Valley Ministry. There is a similar gathering at Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, which holds its Shabbat services a few blocks away on Dolores Street. But those congregants won't be in their familiar spiritual homes for the April 17 celebration of Passover and the festive seder meal that accompanies it.
"It's too big" to hold at the Noe Valley Ministry, says Beyt Tikkun board member Peter Gabel. Instead, the Beyt Tikkun seder will take place at the First Unitarian Church on Franklin Street, and is expected to draw a few hundred people.
Another several hundred celebrants will convene at the Holiday Inn on Van Ness Avenue to share Sha'ar Zahav's Passover seder. "It's becoming incredibly popular," says congregation spokesman Marc Wernick.
Indeed, it is not at all unusual for attendance to swell dramatically during major celebrations. But the size of the events also acknowledges a Jewish presence in Noe Valley that is growing and becoming more visible.
In the last decade, four Jewish religious centers have settled in or on the edge of the neighborhood. The latest is Chabad of Noe Valley, which moved in 21/2 years ago and immediately inaugurated the very public lighting of a large menorah on 24th Street during Hanukkah. That now-annual affair comes complete with latkes (potato pancakes), music, and arts and crafts. Congregations also have established several small religious schools for Jewish children.
The Chabad House has a program that introduces kids to Passover and "the fun that goes with it," says Rabbi Gedalia Potash. The children dress up in special baker's hats and "roll out their own dough, make their little holes, and make their own matzo, which brings the excitement of the holiday right to them.
"We're doing it in Noe Valley for the first time," Potash says.
This Year's Focus on Peace
By now, the basic outline of the Passover story is fairly well known to most Christians and non-Christians. The holiday celebrates the exodus of Jews from slavery in Egypt 3,300 years ago, during the reign of pharaohs Ramses II and his son Merneptah. Led by Moses, the Jews escaped across the Red Sea, only to wander in the desert wilderness for 40 years before reaching their homeland.
Jews commemorate Passover with a feast called a seder, which includes a recounting of the exodus, and a meal with foods that symbolize the story of the Hebrew slaves. Horseradish, for example, represents the pain and suffering of slavery, while a hardboiled egg represents life.
Passover takes on a special significance this year because of the violence, suffering, and anguish emanating from the war in Iraq. Organizers of this year's community seders say peace will be uppermost in their minds.
"There's that sense to remember those who are less fortunate and to reflect on the issues of the world at large," says Potash, whose 80-member Orthodox congregation meets in his home on Elizabeth Street. "There will be prayers expressed for peace and freedom for all mankind--not just for the Jewish religion."
Passover services at Beyt Tikkun, a Jewish Renewal congregation, will have a "major focus" on peace, and will also address "the obligation of Jews to recognize the legitimate rights of the Palestinians to self-liberation," Gabel says. "As we celebrate the Jews' emancipation from Egypt," says Gabel, "the same principles and aspects of Jewish identity should lead Jewish people to support the legitimate aspirations of Palestinian people."
"The Wizard of Oyz"
Passover is mostly celebrated in people's homes, with family and friends. But for the past few years, Noe Valley residents Michael and Liz Schaffer and G'dali Braverman have been major players in a seder that has become so popular it has been moved to outdoor venues such as Stern Grove and the Las Vegas desert. This year's event will be staged in the Berkeley hills.
"The commandment is to retell the story [of the Exodus] as if it's in your own time and your own place--and we took it seriously," says Liz Schaffer, a financial management consultant.
"My husband and a friend always write an original musical for seder--and it's based on different themes," she explains.
One year, the musical was set to songs from The Sound of Music, and last year it was a spin-off of The Wizard of Oz--renamed "The Wizard of Oyz."
"The story of 'Oyz' works pretty well for the Exodus," says Schaffer. "We didn't have a tin man. We had a gold man and Glenda the Matzo Queen."
This time, the composers have decided to rework popular Beatles songs and weave them into the Passover story. Replacing the familiar "Love Me Do" will be the tune "Love, Love Me Jew."
15 Percent of Noe Valley
These days, Jewish spirituality doesn't end at the conclusion of Passover.
Wernick of Sha'ar Zahav, a progressive Reform synagogue with a large gay membership, says he has noticed an overall increase in participation, especially since the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center.
"The unfortunate events of Sept. 11 have really heightened people's spiritual needs," he says. "That and other world events have heightened people's Jewish identity."
Many Noe Valley residents are among the new faces in the congregation, led by Rabbi Camille Shira Angel. "We did an analysis of our most recent members, and about 15 to 20 percent of new folk were from Noe Valley," says Wernick.
In fact, the neighborhood was the "single largest geographical" area of growth for the congregation, which has roughly 450 families. New members were fairly evenly divided between traditional and "new lifestyle" families, Wernick notes.
Rabbi Potash of Chabad, who wears the Hasidic accouterments of a long black beard, long sideburns, and black clothes, says he's aware of a Jewish presence whenever he walks the streets of Noe Valley.
"I'm surrounded by Jews. I see Jewish faces. I get smiles and waves and acknowledgements" that carry the message: "I don't know you, but I know what you're about."
From his work and observations during the past few years, Potash has concluded, "There are a lot of Jews in Noe Valley--definitely more than 3,000. Just walking down the street, you see lots of mezuzahs in the doorways." Mezuzahs are small artifacts that identify a household as Jewish.
If Potash's estimate is accurate, Jews would comprise nearly 15 percent of the 21,000 residents in Noe Valley, a neighborhood that was predominantly Italian, Irish, and German through the late 1960s.
"I've lived in Noe Valley on and off for 30 years," says Beyt Tikkun's Gabel, a trustee and former president of the New College of California law school.
"It's always been politically progressive, but there is a distinctive spiritual element that has been increasing in the last 10 years," says Gabel, who lives on Elizabeth Street with his partner Lisa Jaicks and their son, Sam.
Temporary Homes at the Ministry
The Or Shalom Jewish Community was an early arrival in Noe Valley. It began to hold religious services in 1991 at the Noe Valley Ministry, a Presbyterian church on Sanchez Street that also opens its doors to other religious and community activities.
In just five years, the Ministry's facility proved too small for Or Shalom's growing staff and congregation, which then numbered 128 households--approximately 20 to 30 percent of them Noe Valley residents. In 1996, Or Shalom moved to larger quarters in the Twin Peaks area and now has some 200 households.
"Another Jewish congregation moved in behind us," says Rabbi Pam Baugh, referring to Beyt Tikkun's arrival at the Ministry in late 1996.
During its founding year, Beyt Tikkun--whose spiritual leader is nationally prominent rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine--held Shabbat services two Friday evenings a month at the Noe Valley Ministry.
But in 1997, the synagogue moved to San Francisco's Jewish Community Center on California Street. When the JCC was closed for renovation some three years ago, Beyt Tikkun returned to the Ministry. Since then, the membership has continued to expand, both here and in the East Bay (meetings also take place at a synagogue in Berkeley).
Being "Out" About Jewishness
Valley Street resident Vicki Rosen is one of those who appreciates the increase in Jewish activities. Though she wasn't particularly seeking them out, Rosen remembers that there were few Jewish gatherings in Noe Valley when she arrived in 1972. Today, she is an active member of Chabad House and gets together with the rabbi's wife and other women for Rosh Chodesh activities, which "involves discussions of various things of interest to Jewish women."
"I reconnected to my Jewishness fairly recently, a few years ago," says Rosen, who works for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "My parents have always been fairly religious, so they have been delighted to see this Jewish renewal in me."
On Passover, Rosen, who is also president of the residents' group Upper Noe Neighbors, plans to attend two seders--one at Chabad House and another at home with husband Randy Zielinski, daughter Erin, and perhaps a few close friends.
Like Rosen, Howard Steiermann, who's lived in Noe Valley since 1993, has also noticed more Jewish visibility in the neighborhood.
"There are more Jews who are coming into Noe Valley, and Jews who are more 'out' about their Jewishness," says Steiermann, a real estate appraiser and Sha'ar Zahav board member. "They're more interested in exploring their roots and exploring their spirituality."
He says his congregation's directory is a telling indicator of how things have changed. One glance and he can easily locate a Jewish neighbor, should he need a ride from his home to the synagogue.
Steiermann remembers the recent Purim holiday "where we read the story of Esther"--about a Jew married to a Persian king who uses her wiles to foil a plot to slaughter the kingdom's Jewish population. "People typically dress up as one of the characters in the story," says Steiermann. "I was dressed as Queen Esther and wearing a tiara" and standing on a Noe Valley street corner waiting for a neighbor to pick him up.
"It was wonderful to dress up with three other people and carpool off to the synagogue." h
Local Jewish Congregations
Beyt Tikkun Synagogue
Rabbi Michael Lerner
2107 Van Ness Ave., Suite 302
San Francisco, CA 94109
Beyt Tikkun holds Shabbat services every other Friday at the Noe Valley Ministry, 1021 Sanchez Street near 23rd Street (415-282-2317). This month, on Friday, April 4, the Ministry will host the Children's Shabbat service at 6 p.m. and a vegetarian potluck Shabbat celebration at 7 p.m. On Friday, April 18, Beyt Tikkun will hold Shabbat services at Synergy School, 1387 Valencia Street.
Chabad of Noe Valley
Rabbi Gedalia Potash
889 Elizabeth Street
San Francisco, CA 94114
Chabad of Noe Valley offers religious school for children on Wednesdays at 3:30 p.m. Friday Shabbat dinner is at 7:30 p.m. Saturday services are at 10 a.m.
Congregation Sha'ar Zahav
Rabbi Camille Shira Angel
290 Dolores Street at 16th Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
Congregation Sha'ar Zahav holds Ma'ariv services on Friday evenings, 7:30 p.m.; shacharit services are held at 10 a.m. on Saturday mornings.
Or Shalom Jewish Community
Rabbi Pam Baugh
20 Woodside Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94127