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New rabbi settles in at LGBT synagogue

by Heather Cassell

Rabbi Mychal Copeland
Rabbi Mychal Copeland  

Taking over leadership of Congregation Sha'ar Zahav is a dream come true for Rabbi Mychal Copeland, who is excited and proud to lead the LGBT synagogue in San Francisco.

"I have dreamt about this kind of role for many years," said Copeland, who is a lesbian and assumed her new job July 1.

The synagogue, founded in 1977, is celebrating its 40th year.

Copeland's arrival at the synagogue is beshert , a Yiddish term meaning "meant to be," said Michael Chertok, president of the board at Congregation Sha'ar Zahav.

"I think that we feel that way about her and she feels that way about us," said Chertok, a gay man.

Chertok noted that Copeland's experience dovetailed perfectly with the congregation's new vision.

"[She] really had her finger on the pulse of what people are looking for in terms of spiritual meaning, practice, and community," said Chertok. "We were really impressed with that in terms of her wisdom around Judaism and spirituality practice. She's brilliant.

"She also just has a real genuine warmth in connecting with people," he added.


Leading into the future

Copeland, 46, has spent her life working on cutting edge issues, such as education and interfaith relationships, through the lens of Jewish spiritual practice. She's been a rabbi for more than 13 years.

Copeland was attracted to Congregation Sha'ar Zahav not only because she could merge her Jewish and LGBT identities, but also because of its community and strong lay leadership.

The community has grown organically from its roots in the 1970s with an "emphasis on recognizing the divine in every individual," she told the Bay Area Reporter.

She also appreciates the congregation's diverse community. She's particularly interested in continuing her work with interfaith families, working with transgender members, and working with San Francisco's interfaith community.

"This community is constantly challenging and celebrating what's best in Judaism and challenging those places ... that need innovation and transformation," said Copeland.

The difference is that now the community is openly stating its inclusivity while maintaining its roots and values in the LGBT community, she said.

Chertok agreed.

"We want to make this a place where everyone is welcome, everyone experiences the warmth and comfort of a chosen family," he said. "We bring a queer perspective. We bring our core values."

Copeland, who is committed to having an interfaith dialogue specifically around LGBT issues, said the synagogue has a role to play as "we build on those values as it has opened the doors to everybody who is looking for inclusive place."

"I'm excited to be a part of a large and vibrant inter-religious community," she said, stating that she is also interested in adult education, particularly about religion, given the current political climate.

She noted that there has been an uptick in anti-Semitism over the years, but that religious-based hate crimes aren't limited to the Jewish community, pointing to attacks on Muslims and Sikhs.

"There is, unfortunately, a mood of fear and people closing down rather than seeking new knowledge," said Copeland, who hopes to be a part of the solution. "We refuse to be defined by that or have our agenda defined by that as a community."

Copeland said it's important to stay vigilant around LGBT issues as a barrage of anti-LGBT attacks coming from the White House regularly make headlines.

"Religions tend to get pitted against LGBTQI issues in overly simplistic ways on our national stage," she said, talking about the effect of proposed legislation that harms LGBT people. "We are seeing only one brand of religion because there is only one brand of religion that gets the attention."

Religious institutions and leaders with progressive values need to be heard and seen, she said.

"Much of that conversation needs to happen around religion," she said. "This is a big part of why I'm so excited about this role. To be in a place with progressive values that is unabashedly a religious institution. It's profound right now."

Copeland and the board of directors declined to disclose her salary and the synagogue's annual budget.


California native

Copeland grew up in Long Beach, California before moving to the East Coast for divinity school in Boston, and rabbinical school in Philadelphia and New York.

She previously worked at an LGBT synagogue as the Cooperberg-Rittmaster Rabbinic intern at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York, the world's largest Jewish LGBTQ community, she said.

She met her wife, Kirsti Copeland, 45, at Harvard Divinity School in Boston in 1994. Six years later she received her rabbinical degree from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Pennsylvania.

The couple married in 2000 in New Jersey long before same-sex marriage was legal and were active in the battle for marriage equality. They have two children and Copeland asked that their names not be published due to privacy concerns.

Kirsti Copeland oversees the Office for Student Affairs in the School of Engineering at Stanford University, according to her biography on the university's website.

Copeland and her family returned to the Golden State, where she served as rabbi at the first Hillel at UCLA in 2001 before she was tapped to be the spiritual leader at the Hillel at Stanford in 2003. She held that position for 11 years before becoming the director of InterfaithFamily Bay Area for the past three-and-a-half years, she told the B.A.R.

Copeland is the founder of the Rosh Hodesh (translated New Moon) project. It has a network of more than 100 groups for teen girls to help strengthen their self-esteem and spirituality around the U.S., according to her biography.

She is also an author and a certified yoga instructor. Copeland often blends Judaism and yoga together and plans to host a monthly service at Congregation Sha'ar Zahav that incorporates yoga.


For more information about Rabbi Mychal Copeland, visit For information about Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, visit



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