LGBTQ synagogue brings Hanukkah to the Castro

  • by David-Elijah Nahmod
  • Wednesday December 21, 2022
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Congregation Sha'ar Zahav Cantor Sharon Bernstein, left, and Rabbi Mychal Copeland lead the Castro Hanukkah observance in Jane Warner Plaza December 19. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
Congregation Sha'ar Zahav Cantor Sharon Bernstein, left, and Rabbi Mychal Copeland lead the Castro Hanukkah observance in Jane Warner Plaza December 19. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland

Unseasonably cold temperatures did not stop a hearty band of around 100 people from gathering in Jane Warner Plaza Monday night to celebrate Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights. The event was sponsored by Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, San Francisco's LGBTQ synagogue, and the Castro Community Benefit District and the neighborhood's merchants.

In attendance were Sha'ar Zahav Rabbi Mychal Copeland, a lesbian; Cantor Sharon Bernstein; and local gay Jewish leaders state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco); District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman; and former city supervisor, state senator, and mayoral candidate Mark Leno.

A large electric menorah was on display in the plaza, along with a smaller menorah with traditional Hanukkah candles on a table nearby. Andrea Aiello, a lesbian who's executive director of the CBD, welcomed attendees.

"Hanukkah has even more meaning than other years," Aiello wrote in an emailed statement to the Bay Area Reporter. "Our Jewish and queer communities are under attack. But the Castro stands up, comes out, and celebrates. I am so proud of our community. Happy Hanukkah."

Aiello's sentiments were echoed by Martin Tannenbaum, a 70-year-old gay man who attended the ceremony.

"I'm very involved in Sha'ar Zahav," Tannenbaum told the B.A.R. "It's wonderful to have events that bring people out to celebrate their identities. It's especially important to be visible in this time of rising antisemitism."

Aiello took to the podium and introduced each of the speakers. Wiener was the first to speak.

"We know that there's a lot going on in the world right now," Wiener said. "There's a lot of people who aren't big fans of the Jews. We need to remember what Hanukkah is about, and really project that today, that this is a community that fights back, that we are here, that we are not going anywhere, and we're going to continue to be strong as a community."

Wiener has been the subject of threatening calls and emails for his support of the LGBTQ community and legislation helping expand rights for queer people. Earlier this month someone threatened to blow up his home and office.

Mandelman noted how cold it was.

"But we are warmed by this lovely event," he said. "We're very lucky to have so many people here who work every day, every week, to bring joy to the Castro, Andrea and the CBD, and the merchants are here, Alex (Lemberg) from the Eureka Valley Neighborhood Association is here. Thank you, Rabbi Copeland and Sha'ar Zahav for all that you do to bring a little Yiddishkeit (Jewish tradition) to the neighborhood, and everyone have a wonderful happy Hanukkah and a wonderful 2023. We've had a few rough years, I think we're ready for a really, really good one."

Aiello pointed out that Leno continues to advocate for the Castro community even though he's no longer in office.

"Chag Sameach," Leno said, invoking the Hebrew words for happy holidays. "It's important that we bring community together. We know these are tough times. It is said that better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. But what of those who don't even have the resources to light a candle? Just walking down the street tonight to see so many people struggling, storefronts struggling, neighborhood struggling, this neighborhood is not unique, the city is in a very challenging position right now. I just want to suggest that, for we the fortunate, to focus on all that we have and be reminded of the Jewish dictum of 'tzedakah' (charity) for those of us who are able to help those who cannot help themselves right now."

Copeland told the crowd that she had just gotten off of a plane. She was returning from Washington, D.C., where she had attended a Hanukkah celebration hosted by Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, where she sang the candle blessings. The rabbi noted that a Sha'ar Zahav Hanukkah menorah would be on display at Emhoff's office during the week.

"Because he wanted to make sure that their home of the Bay Area was represented well," the rabbi said of Emhoff and his spouse, Vice President Kamala Harris, who used to be San Francisco's district attorney. "Especially the queer community and Jewish community from their home area. May we light this sacred darkness every night of this week, Happy Hanukkah."

Two volunteers then stepped up to the electric menorah to light two bulbs, marking the second night of the holiday. Hanukkah lasts for eight nights. This was followed by the singing of several Hanukkah songs led by Bernstein at the keyboard. Selections included "The Dreidel Song" and Tom Lehrer's "Hanukkah in Santa Monica."

The crowd remained gathered for around a half hour, chatting and eating the jelly donuts that were served.

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