The soft tenor of the shofar, a ram’s horn trumpet, sounded faintly in the streets outside Sha’ar Zahav, a progressive Reform synagogue in the Mission District. The horn marked the congregation’s celebration Wednesday of the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. More than 150 members of the LGBT and heterosexual congregation gathered for Shacharit, or morning prayers, at the Dolores and 16th Street temple.

Services stretched into the early afternoon as men and women—shoulders draped in white shawls, heads crowned with yarmulkes—celebrated the high holidays, or festivities surrounding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Camille Shira Angel, a self-described lesbian, led the blessings, calling to the altar the recently hospitalized, the challenged, the joyful, and those who spread their faith over the course of the year for ritual blessings.

“What are you celebrating?”

“We got married,” called a gay couple.

“We adopted a son,” said a man.

“I graduated law school,” answered another.

Rabbi Angel drew laughs from the congregation when she referenced the upcoming presidential election.
“This aliyah for everyone who will unite the secular and the sacred Nov. 4,” she said. “And since I’m assuming that’s everyone, you can all just stand… May God inspire us to claim our power and vote with justice.”

As a member of both the Union for Reform Judaism and the World Congress of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Jews, the synagogue’s congregation is diverse. Formed in 1977 specifically for gay and lesbian Jews, Sha’ar Zahav boasts a congregation of 500 adults and more than 150 children. Members are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, heterosexual, Jewish and non-Jewish, according to Rabbi Assistant and Membership Liaison Greg Lawrence.

“A lot of people have been alienated by their birth religion and they come to find us—we’re a community who accepts them for who they are,” Lawrence said. “This is still the only [place of worship] where queer is normative.”

Sha’ar Zahav celebrates the High Holidays differently from other congregations, Lawrence said. Instead of Rabbi-dominated services, the synagogue uses lay-leaders, or community members, to read sermons and lead prayer.

“People come from both orthodox and secular backgrounds, and services reflect that,” remarked Lawrence. “We are very much a lay-led synagogue.”

Naomi Sunshine attended Wednesday’s services with her partner and young daughter. Sunshine said she was celebrating through “festive meals with friends and family.”

Sunshine said she chose Sha’ar Zahav “because we love the community, and we love the fact that our daughter gets to see lots of families like hers, and other different kinds of families.”

“It’s a pretty amazing place—an inspiring place,” said Francesco Spagnolo, husband of the congregation’s cantor Hazzan Sharon Bernstein. Spagnolo said, for him, Rosh Hashanah is about three words: Teshuva, “finding paths backwards,” tefillah, “prayer,” and tikkun olam, “fixing the world.”

“Its time to think about these things,” he said. “There are lots of different ways to connect with Judaism.”

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