Arts & Culture » News

LGBT Jewish Synagogue Celebrates 40th Anniversary

by Heather Cassell

Rabbi Mychal Copeland
Rabbi Mychal Copeland  (Source:Courtesy Congregation Sha'ar Zahav)

Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, one of the United States' oldest LGBT synagogues, kicks off the Jewish New Year with a celebration of its 40th anniversary next week.

The congregation will be holding its High Holy Days services at the Herbst Theatre, and the public is welcome to attend, officials said.

In marking the milestone of the congregation, which was founded to provide a safe place for LGBT Jews to gather and worship, it has now come out of the desert, so to speak, said Michael Chertok, 54, a gay man who is president of Congregation Sha'ar Zahav.

"Forty is not only a round number that any organization would celebrate, but for us as Jews it's a concept that we think about in the Bible. It was 40 years that we were in the desert before entering the Promised Land. So, particularly for a congregation that was formed by LGBTQ [Jews], we look at this timing of when we are turning 40, we've come to a new place. We've come to a place in this country [where there is] so much greater acceptance and opportunity than we've ever had before and for us that's really fermented a transformation," said Chertok.

He pointed out that many synagogues now welcome LGBT Jews.

The anniversary is an opportunity for the congregation to re-examine and shift its focus and re-establish its purpose within the community, while retaining its roots.

In 1977, when the congregation was founded, Jews, LGBT people, and LGBT Jews, weren't as widely accepted. There was a need for a synagogue that was a safe place for LGBT Jews to gather and worship. Over the years, that has changed. The leadership responded to the change by examining itself and its purpose for the coming decades, broadening its focus beyond the LGBT community to welcoming people who are disenfranchised.

The new mission and vision are reflected in the congregation's new logo and tagline, "Transcend the ordinary."

"We've realized that ... it's imperative for us to reach out to and welcome everyone, particularly people of the Jewish faith [who] feel disenfranchised, whether they are people with disabilities, Jews of color, or people who felt that because they were Jewish that it wasn't something that was celebrated," said Chertok.

In July, the congregation tapped a new leader, Rabbi Mychal Copeland, a 46-year-old lesbian, to help guide it into its future.

"It's a significant time to be looking back to a community that was born out of the need for safe spaces for LGBT people and spaces that are not only tolerant, open, and welcoming, but celebrate every aspect who a person is and what they bring to their spiritual community," Copeland told the Bay Area Reporter.

Copeland has worked with a diverse array of Jewish communities, including interfaith families, that makes her uniquely qualified to step into the congregation's new purpose during its anniversary.

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

"Congregation Sha'ar Zahav comes out of a deep-seated understanding of what it means to be once on the outside and then to create community in a really organic way," she said.

"This community, for a long time, has been inclusive of not just LGBTQI people, but everybody," said Copeland, noting that the broadening of the congregation's focus isn't "necessarily new, but maybe in recognizing how important the full diversity of the community is."

Since its founding, the congregation has grown to an estimated 250 families, but during the High Holy Days it welcomes upward of 800 people.

Over the years, many Jewish clergy have called the congregation home, said Chertok.

Congregation Sha'ar Zahav is inviting the public - Jewish and supporters or those interested in the Jewish faith - to celebrate at the Jewish New Year services, Chertok and Copeland said.

Next week, to mark Rosh Hashanah, Congregation Sha'ar Zahav will have its services at the Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Avenue. The service begins at 7:30 p.m. September 20 and 9:30 a.m. September 21. The services are open to the public and, while donations are requested, no one will be turned away. A reception will follow.

Yom Kippur services in late September will also be held at the Herbst Theatre.

"It's a great year for people to try out the High Holy Days with us if they haven't been here before [and] to be celebrating this landmark," said Copeland. "We welcome everyone."

Schedule of Special Events and Services

September 22: Rosh Hashanah/Jewish New Year services begin at 9:30 a.m. at Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, 290 Dolores Street, San Francisco.

September 29: Yom Kippur services begin at 7:30 p.m. at the Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.

September 30: Yom Kippur services begin at 9:30 a.m. at the Herbst Theatre.

Services are open to the public and culminate in a reception with hors d'oeuvres and drinks. Donations are requested, but no one will be turned away for lack of funds. To RSVP or for more information, visit

November 24: Bar and bat mitzvah reunion Shabbat welcoming back more than 40 young adults raised in Congregation Sha'ar Zahav will return to celebrate as a community.

January 26: Installation officially welcoming Rabbi Mychal Copeland into the Congregation Sha'ar Zahav community.

February 23-24: Shabbaton, more than 15 clergy members will reunite for a weekend of celebration and Jewish learning and mark the impact that Congregation Sha'ar Zahav has had on the Jewish world.

April 20: Celebrating the congregation's lay leaders that have helped build Congregation Sha'ar Zahav.

For a schedule of upcoming events, see the online version at


Add New Comment

Comments on Facebook