| April 2011
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By Heather World
Over the past decade, Rabbi Gedalia Potash and wife Leah Potash have seen their Chabad of Noe Valley expand into two buildings on Cesar Chavez Street. Photo by Beverly Tharp
Ten years ago, when Rabbi Gedalia Potash moved to San Francisco with his wife and baby daughter, he decided to walk the streets of Noe Valley to complete his first minyan, the quorum of 10 men required to conduct orthodox prayer services. His success then—it took him about 15 minutes to get five people more than he needed—foretold his future. Today, the 35-year-old father of seven has expanded Chabad of Noe Valley as exponentially as his family, attracting enough supporters to finance the purchase of three buildings, fill a preschool and a Hebrew school, and pack holiday celebrations.
“We started from a room in a bed-and-breakfast, and now we’re a full-fledged community here,” said Potash, who counts 2,500 households on his mailing list.
His is the only orthodox Jewish congregation on the southeast side of town, but it also attracts Jews who do not observe all 613 commandments, or mitzvot, of the Torah, the Jewish bible.
“As a Chabad rabbi, I aspire to an orthodox lifestyle, but I don’t impose that on anybody else,” he said. “I look at myself as God’s salesman, not God’s policeman.”
Modern interpretations of the Torah exist in other strands of the faith, but often people are trying to go back to the original document to decide what interpretation works for them, he said. Chabad does not focus on the traditional categories of Judaism—reform, conservative, and orthodox.
“A Jew is a Jew is a Jew—that’s really what counts,” Potash said.
His nonjudgmental approach has attracted Jews who practice varying degrees of observance. Matt Gershuny of 26th Street attends Chabad services on Saturday mornings. The Potashes have deepened his understanding of the “hows, whys, and whats” of the faith, he said.
“They create opportunities for you to become more knowledgeable and engaged if you want to,” Gershuny said. “There’s no pressure. You can be in sandals and a flannel shirt standing next to somebody that’s walked three miles to get here.”
Those who walk to synagogue are observing the mitzvah to keep the Sabbath holy by doing no work on Saturday. Another familiar mitzvah is eating only unleavened bread (matzo) during the week of Passover.
Gershuny’s fiancée, Alyce Arnick of Diamond Street, has studied with the rabbi’s wife, Leah Potash. Arnick has also appreciated the Chabad approach, she said.
“Gedalia and Leah teach that any single mitzvah observed is good for the world,” she said.
Chabad (pronounced “khŠ-bŠd) itself is a growing international movement of ultraorthodox Judaism that combines mysticism with religious scholarship. The name is an acronym in Hebrew, standing for wisdom, understanding, and knowledge. Its parent movement, Hasidism, was born in the 18th century in response to what was perceived as an overly formal and remote structure of the religion.
“It’s a more joyous celebratory approach to Judaism,” said Potash, who is known to whip out the vodka shots at the community Sabbath dinners the family hosts inside its home.
Members of the movement do not proselytize. Rather, Chabad of Noe Valley has grown by word of mouth and by its visibility in the neighborhood.
“My wife’s delicious challah gets a lot of the credit,” Potash said. He regularly delivers the loaves of Sabbath bread to Jewish members of the community.
The rabbi’s clothes distinguish him: like most Hassidic Jews, he observes the mitzvah to dress modestly by wearing a simple white shirt and black suit. His sideburns are long, and he wears a yarmulke. People are surprised to see an orthodox rabbi, he said, and they often stop him to talk.
Then there is the public lighting of the menorah, which Chabad hosts on 24th Street every Hanukkah. It has drawn up to 200 people, he said.
In the past decade, Potash has moved Chabad’s home base five times. He first hosted services in Noe’s Nest Bed & Breakfast on Guerrero Street, where the family was staying. A couple of months later, they moved services to Edison Charter Elementary School on 22nd Street, and a couple of months after that to a house on Valley Street. Two years later, worship moved to a house on Elizabeth Street, and one year after that Potash found a small storefront on 29th Street at San Jose Avenue.
During that time the Potashes bought a home on Cesar Chavez Street. The growing family lives upstairs in the modest Victorian; Chabad’s celebrations and expanding preschool are housed on the bottom floor. The synagogue also owns a satellite preschool location in St. Mary’s Park.
Last year, their Cesar Chavez Street neighbor offered the two-bedroom house at 3781 for a below-market rate of $900,000. Chabad’s last late charismatic leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, deemed that each congregation must raise its own funds. Accordingly, Potash started a capital campaign within his community. He raised $250,000 within 90 days, he said.
“When you can generate the support locally, it shows people are really buying into something they believe in and enjoy,” Potash said.
Many local Chabad of Noe Valley supporters came in through the doors of its preschool, Gan Noe. When she started Gan Noe in 2005, Leah Potash advertised on Craigslist and soon had four children attending three days a week.
“That was the only advertising we’ve ever done,” she said. Now the school employs seven teachers working five days a week for 40 children, and she hopes to add another grade soon, a pre-kindergarten program.
Leah had hoped to locate a commercial facility for the school, but that proved hard to find. “Space in Noe Valley is not so easy to come by, but it’s really been this blessing in disguise,” she said.
Children transition into school much easier, thanks to the home environment, she said. The generous front garden and paved side yard at the Cesar Chavez Street house made for good outdoor space even before the adjacent property was bought, and now the children have a wide patch of play space outside the new building.
That atmosphere attracted Ben and Carrie Goorin of 28th Street when their son was ready for school.
“It was kind of like an extension of your family taking care of your child,” said Carrie. Goorin started Aim Chai, an auction that has twice raised about $9,000 for the school.
Now the Goorins attend services for the major Jewish holidays Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as well as smaller community events like Tot Shabbat—a Sabbath dinner for preschool families that fills every corner of the Potash living and dining rooms.
“They want to help you continue whatever path you want to take,” said Carrie.
Classes with Customs
Olga and Rob Eber of Noe Street had a similar experience and now have their second son in the preschool.
“I love the teaching through ritual, through tradition, through song,” Olga said. “It’s not just teaching—it’s a higher calling for them.”
Though they identified themselves as Jewish, the family had not previously observed any rituals. Now they light candles on Friday night to celebrate the Sabbath. Olga also socializes with other preschool moms, and the local connection is important to her, she said.
“These are the same families you see in the playground and at the store,” she said.
Olga also attends some of the women’s classes, which focus on the relevance of Jewish customs to modern life as well as making holiday foods like challah and hamentaschen. Leah hosts the classes, but they were initiated by preschool moms who wanted to learn more about the projects their children brought home.
The rabbi, too, hosts classes and Torah study every week. His website, www.chabadnoevalley.org, is loaded with articles about everything from mindfulness and Jewish meditation to making a kitchen kosher.
With all these efforts—celebrations, preschool, classes—Potash says he is looking to create a sense of family within a vibrant center for Jewish life.
“We run our operation first as a family, then as an organization,” he said.
Chabad of Noe Valley will host a Passover Seder in April and an open house in June. See www.chabadnoevalley.org or call 415-821-7046 for details.