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August 18, 1989 - Image 26

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1989-08-18

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A Synagogue
With A Mission


Special to The Jewish News

n a quiet street deep
in the heart of San
trict sits a syna-
gogue with a mission. It was
founded in 1977 by a handful of peo-
ple seeking to establish a welcoming
environment for the many gay Jews
who say they have felt, at best,
tolerated in the mainstream
Congregation Sha'ar Zahov,
which means the golden gate, has
grown tremendously in the past few
years. It is recognized as a progressive
leader in both the gay community
and within the Bay Area's Jewish
"We who have our own history of
having been turned away and exclud-
ed have a special awareness and con-
sciousness," says Sha'ar Zahov's Rab-
bi Yoel Kahn. "We have a responsibili-
ty to reach out in every way within


'we have a mission
that is not being
realized any place
else. We're the only
congregation that
stops and takes time
to acknowledge

our resources to make other people
feel welcome. That's really our
"How many people have gone to
their hometown rabbi and asked, 'Am
I welcome here as a gay person or a
lesbian?' And the rabbi said, 'Sure,
just don't bring your lover.' In other
words, just don't be too public about it.
"And so, there are all these con-
gregations where gay and lesbians
are welcome, but they have a special
outreach to straight people. Well,
we're a congregation where everyone
is welcome, but we have a special
outreach to gay and lesbian people!'
The synagogue's membership is a
diverse group. Although the general



age range is from late 20s to late 40s,
Sha'ar Zahov president Robin
Leonard says membership stretches
from 92 years old and all the way to
their newest member, a two-month-
old infant.
"We have members who grew up
in Orthodox yeshivas. We have
members who went to the most
Reform synagogues that exist. We
come from the entire range. And our
services reflect this. We sometimes
joke and call ourselves the `Reconfor-
modoxes; " she says.
Diversity is further evident in the
number of non-Jewish participants in
the Sha'ar Zahov community.
""Ib be a member of Sha'ar Zahov
you need not be a Jew as defined
within the Jewish religion," Leonard
says. "We have a number of members
who are not Jewish but who are corn-
mitted to the principles and practices
of Judaism and uphold the work of
this congregation!'
Affiliated with the Reform move-
ment, Sha'ar Zahov boasts the
highest attendance on Friday night
services of any synagogue in
San Francisco. It holds an array of
adult evening courses in subjects
ranging from prayer book Hebrew to
discussion of the Palestinian/Israeli
"A lot of people are looking to in-
tegrate the different parts of their
lives — as a political person, as a
Jewish person, as a lesbian or gay
person, as a feminist person, as a per-
son looking for community, as people
looking for a spiritual home. And part
of what the synagogue provides,
hopefully, is an integration of those
things so that people don't have to feel
so fragmented," Rabbi Kahn says.
Rabbi Kahn believes the major
philosophical question in Judaism is
not, "What is God:' but rather, "What
does God expect us to do?" With that
in mind, members of Sha'ar Zahov are
committed to caring for their com-
munity — the Jewish community, the
gay and lesbian community and
especially the gay-lesbian Jewish
community," he says.
"One difference between Sha'ar
Zahov and most other synagogues is
that we are like an extended family

Rabbi Yoel Kahn: 'We who have our own history of having been excluded have a special

in an old-fashioned type of way. And
so people feel connected to a com-
munity and know that if something
happens to them, they'll be taken
care of!'
Sha'ar Zahov members par-
ticipate in Soviet Jewry programs,
raise money for Ethiopian Jews and
support sanctuary for Central
American refugees. They also work
with Jewish Family Services to help
poor, sick and elderly Jews in the Bay
The congregation provides ongo-
ing assistance to the San Francisco
AIDS Foundation Food Bank by sup-
plying weekly donations of food col-
lected at Friday night services.
synagogue also sponsors a monthly
brunch for AIDS patients at a local
"We have a mission that is not be-
ing realized any place else," Rabbi
Kahn says. "And so, in that sense, we
are the only congregation that we
know of that celebrates lesbian and
gay freedom day as a festival on our
religious calendar. We're the only con-
gregation that we know of that has
a special meeting remembering gay
and lesbian siblings throughout the
ages every week. We're the only con-
gregation that stops and takes time
to acknowledge AIDS!'
Leonard believes that while a

growing sense of spirituality exists
within the gay community, due in
part to the AIDS crisis, there is ac-
tually a marked distrust, perhaps
even antagonism, toward mainstream
religion. Yet she says that Sha'ar
Zahov is, in a sense, redefining
Leonard agrees that Judaism,
along with most mainstream
religions, has not in the past been ac-
cepting of homosexuality. But she
feels this attitude is changing and
that congregations like Sha'ar Zahov
must encourage a dynamic rethink-
ing of religion.
She cites the Reform 7brah Com-
mentary, which offers insight into Bi-
ble passages. Sha'ar Zahov memers
wrote the national office of the
Reform movement regarding the
Leviticus passage about men lying
with men.
Until several years ago, the
passage was interpreted as saying
homosexuality was wrong, she says.
Sha'ar Zahov congregants believed
they could do a better job.
"We got a reply inviting us to go
ahead, which we did. The newest edi-
tion has the rewritten passage with
homosexuality now being brought up
to its modern interpretation — that
within the diversity of our people all
expressions of sexuality are okay." 0

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