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Rabbi formally installed at Sha'ar Zahav

by David-Elijah Nahmod

Rabbi Mychal Copeland. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Rabbi Mychal Copeland. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

Around 200 people attended Friday night Sabbath services January 26 as Mychal Copeland was formally installed as the rabbi at Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, San Francisco's synagogue for LGBTQ Jews, loved ones, and friends.

Copeland, a lesbian, had actually begun serving at Sha'ar Zahav last summer, but Friday night's service and ceremony made her position official.

A number of Copeland's teachers and mentors were in attendance at the installation, including Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann, who lit the Sabbath candles. Another of Copeland's mentors, Rabbi Steven Carr-Reuben, noted her commitment to compassion and justice.

The congregation welcomed their new rabbi with a blessing, which was read aloud in unison.

"Rabbi, welcome to our home, your new home," they stated in part. "May tonight be one of many joyous occasions and many smiles. Your family and friends celebrate with you. Challenge us to be our best."

The congregation also said a prayer for all LGBTQ people who were forced to live lives of loneliness or had been subjected to hate crimes and discrimination.

Cantor Sharon Bernstein then placed her hands on Copeland's head and said a silent prayer in Hebrew.

Former state Senator Mark Leno, a gay Jewish man running for mayor, attended the ceremony.

"Tonight we celebrate a joyous occasion as we installed Rabbi Copeland," Leno told the Bay Area Reporter. "We all wish her enormous success."

Rafael Mandelman, a gay Jewish man who sits on the board of City College of San Francisco, was also in attendance. Mandelman is currently running for District 8 supervisor.

"This is exciting," Mandelman, said. "She has brought a really great feeling to the temple. There's a sense of renewal and vigor - I'm happy to be here."

Copeland told the B.A.R. that the Sha'ar Zahav community was "amazing."

"I feel blessed to be welcomed by this group of people," she said, noting that she was too overcome with emotion to offer a full statement. Her 12-year-old son, Jonah Copeland, said that he thought his mom was a good rabbi.

On Monday, Copeland explained that her installation was delayed because Sha'ar Zahav was preparing for High Holy Days shortly after she was appointed.

"So we decided there was no need to rush it and planned for January," she said. "I chose the date of January 26 because our Torah reading cycle that day lands on the Song at the Sea after the crossing of the Red Sea. Sabbath every year on that date is called 'Sabbath of the Song' in celebration of the miracles in our lives, both spectacular and mundane, the unfailing spirit of our people when they could have been subsumed by despair, and the spiritual and musical leadership of one of our matriarchs, Miriam the prophetess, who took her timbrel in her had and led the Israelites in song as they reached dry land."

Congregants told the B.A.R. that they were delighted by their new rabbi.

"She's changed the whole tenor of the place," said congregant Beth Sousa. "The energy here is very lively and uplifting."

"She's very humble," added Ema Morales. "She's a communicator. She has time for everyone."

Copeland is a speaker and a writer on the inclusion of LGBTQ people in religious life. She is co-editor of "Struggling In Good Faith: LGBTQI Inclusion from 13 American Religious Perspectives" (Skylight Paths Publishing, 2015). She has served as director of InterFaith Family Bay Area and has also served as a rabbi at UCLA and at Stanford University. She has a master's degree in theological studies and a secondary teaching credential from Harvard Divinity School.

She received her rabbinical degree from Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Copeland is also a certified yoga instructor and fuses Jewish spirituality with movement in her yoga classes. She will be bringing yoga to her new congregation.

Copeland said that in the polarized political climate, the theme of her installation resonated.

"I felt that we could use a night of singing out in community, healing, solidarity, and celebration," she said. "That is exactly how I felt being officially welcomed into Sha'ar Zahav last weekend."

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