Chabad On The Bay: 32 Years of Service
From musicians to charm vendors, mimes to multi-lingual tourists, San Franciscans are accustomed to seeing almost anything on their streets. Yet the sight of a Chassidic rabbi on a motorcycle, long beard and yarmulke flying in the breeze, rarely fails to turn their heads.
Often there’s someone else on the bike with him. Perhaps it’s a local businessman who needs a ride to morning prayers. It may be a Jewish child having the time of his life. The bike, a symbol of Rabbi Yosef Langer’s innovative outreach style, scampers around the Financial District, putting smiles on peoples faces and breaking down their stereotypes of Chassidic Jews.
The story of that rabbi, his family and the legendary rise of Chabad-style Chassidism in the San Francisco Bay Area, dates back to the early ‘70s, when young Jews on college campuses were searching for greater meaning in their lives. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson MH”M, leader of the Chabad movement since 1950, sensed that these young people were ready for a Jewish renaissance, and systematically set about making it happen.
The Rebbe’s concept was to create a Jewish “home away from home” for students, community young people and travelers. The first Chabad House opened next to the UCLA campus in Los Angeles in the late ‘60s. The Berkeley Chabad House was the second to follow. Today, Chabad Houses number almost three thousand globally, as part of an international network of educational and social services sponsored by the Lubavitch Chassidic movement.
The Berkeley Beginnings
In 1972, Rabbi Shlomo Cunin of LA Chabad purchased a fraternity house several blocks from the UC Berkeley campus. Guests for Shabbos meals quickly numbered well over 100 in the new Chabad House. Students rented out guest rooms in order to live and learn in a Jewish environment, and travelers stayed over on Shabbos and holidays to reconnect to their roots.
Israelis coming from secular backgrounds would tour America after their army service. Amazed by the warm welcome they received from the Chabadniks, they enjoyed spending Shabbos in a Hebrew-speaking environment and connecting with other young Israelis. Barriers that existed between “black hats” and secular Israelis began to erode.
RABBI YOSEF AND HINDA LANGER JOIN CHABAD IN BERKELEY
Then in 1975, Rabbi Yosef Langer and his wife Hinda came on “shlichus” to manage daily activities at the Chabad House under the tutelage of Rabbi Chaim and Leah Drizin, the first Chabad couples in Northern California.
Rabbi Drizin had originally met Rabbi Langer in 1970 and helped guide him on a spiritual Jewish path. He then encouraged him to study for the rabbinate at Hadar Hatorah Rabbinic Seminary in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, NY.
A native of the East Bay and former member of Congregation Beth Jacob of Oakland, Rabbi Langer was pleased to be working in the area where he grew up. Little by little, he began breaking down his former neighbors’ stereotypes of bearded men in black coats and tzitzis. His familiarity with northern California’s Jewish community helped open doors that had been closed to other Chabad rabbis who had come from the Chassidic neighborhoods of the East Coast.
Hinda Langer was also a returnee to tradition and set about to work on education for women and couples, retreats and a Chabad newspaper to spread tradition in an accessible format.
Both Rabbi Yosef and his wife Hinda spent many hours counseling young people who flocked to the Chabad House in search of eternal values and a way back to their roots. In addition to offering a sympathetic ear, they assisted them in attending schools of higher Jewish learning in Crown Heights, relocating to other vibrant Orthodox Jewish communities or making aliya to Israel.
The Chabad House’s Friday Night Live program became a magnet for local Reform and Conservative youth and adult groups. Rabbis Langer, Drizin and Citron and their families introduced them to an atmosphere that mixed joy and holiness in harmony. Participants began to rediscover the traditions of their grandparents which had fallen away in pursuit of the American dream.
Rabbi Yehuda Ferris joined the Berkeley Chabad House as Education Director in 198O. Rabbi Ferris’s dry wit, engaging warmth and readiness to approach every Jew quickly attracted people to his Torah teachings. He and his wife Miriam have had a tremendous impact on the lives of thousands of young people who have attended their programs. Today, they direct the Berkeley Chabad House, which they relocated from the original fraternity house to a center on College Avenue.
They also maintain and support Mikva Taharas Israel, the first modern mikva built by Chabad in 1977.
From the Berkely Chabad House’s outreach programs, Chabad of Marin sprouted and soon the vision of expansion to SF became a reality.
CHABAD OF SF
Expansion to bring tradition to the City by the Bay
San Francisco was one of the last major U.S. cities without a Chabad center. Yet for a variety of Jewish populations, from conventioneers and tourists to established families and young transplants, expanding Chabad to San Francisco would meet a need for traditional Jewish education, community affiliation and Orthodox synagogue services.
Like elsewhere in America, San Francisco’s young people were ready to explore their roots. Many had been exposed to Chabad in Berkeley and wanted a similar spiritual Jewish atmosphere closer to home. Knowing that a city the size of San Francisco would require a major extra effort to get a program off the ground, Rabbi Langer and Hinda themselves moved to the city in 1985.
Interest in Chabad grew rapidly, from a Jewish singles group in the Marina, to store owners, stockbrokers, and others. No other organization at the time offered such a no-strings-attached welcome. Open House Shabbos dinners brought a taste of tradition to town. Free, inspiring High Holiday services attracted thousands unaffiliated Jews. Many participants from those initial gatherings are today’s Jewish community leaders and activists.
Mikvah Taharas Israel
Since ancient times, Jewish women have immersed in a ritual bath or mikva prior to resuming intimate relations with their husbands after their monthly cycle. As Jewish women in Northern California began connecting with their roots, they needed a means to observe this sacred ritual. In 1977, Rabbi Langer joined with other Chabad families to help raise the money to build the first mikva in Northern California since 1907. Set in an elegant redwood environment, the Berkeley mikvah remains in operation under the supervision of Miriam Ferris, her husband Rabbi Yehuda Ferris, Rabbi Benzion Welton and his wife Sharona Welton.
Downtown Chabad Center
The original Chabad Center in San Francisco was housed in a two-story space on Tillman Place, a small brick alley off Grant Avenue. The location afforded attracted downtown store owners and businesspeople to lunchtime Torah classes and a morning minyan. Many of the men who attended were introduced to the routine of putting on tefillin by Rabbi Langer and his rabbinic interns, affirming their Jewish commitment and enhancing their workday with a rich spiritual experience. Likewise, Jewish women who worked downtown availed themselves of inspiring classes led by Hinda Langer. Many of these early students went on to marry within the Jewish faith, start families and affiliate with one of the many Orthodox or other synagogues in the city.
As word of the downtown Chabad Center spread, the locals were joined by visitors to San Francisco who were seeking a morning minyan during their stay. The center also became a popular venue for bar/bas mitzva, bris mila and wedding celebrations.
CHABAD HOUSE OF SF
2950 Anza Street
The Chabad House of SF is a Jewish landmark in the SF Jewish community. In a survey on-line for twenty-somethings in the SF Bay Area, there is a question, “How do you know that you grew up Jewish in the Bay Area?” One of the items to click on was, “I spent Shabbos at Chabad House with the Langers.”
The Open House Shabbos Program, running for 14 years on an almost continuous basis, attracts three main groups of people: Jews of all ages from SF and the Bay Area, hundreds of tourists and conventioneers annually, and young Israeli and Shomer Shabbos travelers.
The Anza Street property was originally purchased in 1990 through a major gift of the Alex and Dorothy Langer Trust for both the purpose of housing Chabad
The Anza Street property was originally purchased in 1990 through a major gift of the Alex and Dorothy Langer Trust for both the purpose of housing Chabad activities and Rabbi Yosef Langer and his family.
Working with a pro bono zoning consultant, the Langers obtained a permit for the large, stately home to be used as a synagogue. With over 3,800 square feet of space, the property has enough space to house the Langer family and up to 20 sleep over guests (depending on their comfort zones), plus a synagogue and ample common area for the 50 to 100 people who would show up every Shabbos to learn and celebrate.
Many of the women who came to Anza Street, especially new émigrés from the former Soviet Union, lit Shabbos and holiday candles there for the first time. Childhood memories of their grandmothers lighting candles behind locked doors would often bring tears to their eyes.
In the year 2000, the first phase of an ambitious renovation program, which included a new roof and plumbing, heating and electrical upgrades, was funded by generous grants from the Koret Foundation, the Goldman Philanthropic Fund and George Zimmer of the Men’s Wearhouse.
The Chanukah Menorah
Originally sponsored by Bill Graham a”h in 1975, this flagship Chabad project has become one of the biggest Jewish events in the Bay Area, with over 5,000 people from all walks of Jewish life coming together to hear rousing music, meet Jewish celebrities, eat traditional Chanukah foods and, of course, light Chanukah menorahs. More than any other, this event has helped project an upbeat, joyful image to traditional Judaism in the media and in the eyes of Jews everywhere. A first for America, the San Francisco Chabad menorah has become the most copied Chabad program, with menorahs lit every year in Paris, London, Singapore and Moscow, and in small cities across the United States.
Other Celebrations and Holidays
In addition to Chanukah, Chabad provides services and festivities for all Jewish holidays. For years, we have had High Holidays services open to all at The Fairmont Hotel in downtown San Francisco. For the last two years, we have also enjoyed Seders at the Fairmont. Other celebrations include Purim in the Skyy at the Bank of America building, L’ag B’omer at Stern Grove and Sukkot and Simchat Torah at the Shalom School Campus