A rabbi and a priest walk into a neighborhood

Rabbi Lawrence “Larry” Raphael at Congregation Sherith Israel.

A memorial service for Rabbi Lawrence Raphael will be held on May 4 at 6 p.m. at Congregation Sherith Israel, located at 2266 California Street. His friend Father Xavier Lavagetto recalls their time in the neighborhood.

I WELL REMEMBER when Rabbi Larry Raphael came to Sherith Israel. I was pastor at St. Dominic’s Church, and we had an immediate connection: We both faced the challenge of repairing buildings, while what we wanted most was to build up our people.

I admired greatly his courage; he stepped out of academia into the fray of leading a congregation that faced a daunting challenge. But it would never be enough to retrofit the synagogue; he wanted to strengthen his people.

From our first meeting, it was apparent that he had a passion for learning that shined, invited and blessed. Learning is not something static; Judaism is a living dynamic, a conversation ultimately with the God who always walks with his people. He shared his passion and set his people’s hearts and minds ablaze. He made Sherith Israel a light on the hill, and it shed light on this priest from St. Dominic’s in the valley below.

To be on a panel with him was an adventure. It was the insights that he brought that made every conversation a light in the darkness. His was a passion for people that welcomed even those on the margins. In a world that is too eager to build walls, he built bridges.

His care for the larger community was real. I pray he saw it in us, too. The rule at St. Dominic’s was simple: If Rabbi Raphael asks, the answer is yes!

— Fr. Xavier Lavagetto OP

The dancer is a choreographer

Photograph of Myles Thatcher rehearsing S.F. Ballet dancers by Erik Tomasson

CULTURE BEAT | PAMELA FEINSILBER

Myles Thatcher first came to Pacific Heights when he lived in the dorm for San Francisco Ballet School students on Jackson Street. He joined the company in 2010, and still lives nearby.

As a member of the corps de ballet, he has danced in everything from Swan Lake to Balanchine gems to world premiere works by today’s hottest choreographers. In fact, Thatcher, one of S.F. Ballet artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s youngest commissioned choreographers, has created some 15 one-act works himself — and he’s only 28.

This month, you can see him perform when S.F. Ballet presents John Neumeier’s heart-wrenching story ballet The Little Mermaid from April 19 to 28.

When did you know you had to become a ballet dancer?

I started dancing when I was 8 or 9 years old and couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I started training seriously at 13 or 14 and moved away at 15.

You left home at 15?

I’m from a small town in eastern Pennsylvania, and it’s hard to find a ballet school that’s high caliber enough to get you into the career circuit. I moved to Boca Raton to a place like a ballet boarding school. From there, I moved to New York City to train, and then I joined the top level of the S.F. Ballet School. I fell in love with the city and company when I did a summer program here at 17. I just knew if there was any way I could live and work here, I wanted to pursue it.

What about pursuing dancemaking?

I remember telling a dance teacher I wanted to do choreography, and she rolled her eyes. I kind of lost interest as I was getting my technical abilities up to par, but then we had this opportunity to choreograph. I made my piece on trainees at the S.F. Ballet School, and Helgi Tomasson chose mine to go to a festival the National Ballet School of Canada was hosting. That went well, so they asked me to do another piece for the S.F. Ballet School.

And you never stopped.

Helgi asked me to do work for the company, and from there I started working with other companies, nationally and internationally, for galas, competitions, films.

Would you prefer to be known as a great dancer or a great choreographer?

I would not give up choreography to pursue anything else. I’m happy that I’m setting the groundwork for when I can no longer dance. The average age to stop dancing is the mid-30s, though we have some dancers in their 40s. Right now, I’m balancing the two.

But you’re looking ahead.

I would not want to stop dancing yet, but it’s a short career. Creating dances is a beautiful way to express myself in this art form in a different way. It allows me to discover things with other people. You can’t do ballet alone. You can’t learn it off YouTube. The human element is why it’s survived all these years.

Explain a bit about The Little Mermaid.

It’s not your typical Disney version. It’s a really powerful and moving story about giving yourself to a person who doesn’t have the capacity to give back. The mermaid sacrifices a great deal to try to be with him. The story might be a metaphor for a poet character who is constantly at the mermaid’s side, who might have been in love with a straight man. By the end, we realize the mermaid and the poet narrator have been dealing with events in kind of the same way, like a thread through the piece.

What will you be doing in the piece?

John Neumeier is just a genius storyteller. Being able to work with him, you realize every step in that ballet has a narrative intention, down to the steps for the corps. I’m one of the dancers who make up the sea; we wear long blue skirts with white at the bottom. We also reflect the mermaid’s emotions: She comes from a peaceful place where she belongs and goes to a place where no one’s really happy, so there are moments we reflect tumultuous feelings. Once she gets on land, I am one of the ship’s passengers and wedding couples.

What do you do on a typical day off?

Many days, a few dancers will go to Roam on Fillmore to unwind and have a burger. A little bar called Fat Angel always has an interesting selection of wines and beers, and they have a really good mac and cheese. Upper Fillmore has changed a lot, but I kind of grew up going to La Med, and I still go back there.

They gave Calvary a social conscience

Photograph of the Rev. Dr. Laird J. Stuart by Alvin Johnson

By FRAN MORELAND JOHNS

The Rev. Dr. Laird J. Stuart followed the Rev. Dr. James G. Emerson as pastor of the Calvary Presbyterian Church at Fillmore and Jackson, both chronologically and in a determination to bring to the historic church a greater awareness of social justice issues. On December 19, 2018, he followed Emerson, who died three months earlier, on September 12, to the heavens.

Emerson was a powerful preacher and a pioneering pastor of Calvary in the 1980s. And he practiced what he preached about equality and justice, even getting arrested while participating in a 1987 interracial civil rights “march for brotherhood” in Forsyth County, Georgia.

In 1988, he was one of the founders of the San Francisco Interfaith Council, which brought together leaders of different faith traditions in the city. He traveled to India and met with Mother Teresa. “I told her, ‘We’re Protestants, but we pray for you,’ ” Emerson remembered. She told him: “Well pray more. We are all one people.”

Photograph of the Rev. Dr. James G. Emerson by Sara Butz

Stuart built on the social consciousness Emerson had brought to what was then a sometimes staid, largely affluent, almost entirely white congregation.

Stuart served from 1993 to 2010 and led the fight against homophobia in the Presbyterian church. He was the first president of a nationwide group that lobbied what he called “the radical middle” in the Presbyterian church, urging that people be ordained as ministers, deacons and elders regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

Today Calvary has a diverse group of ministers and banners hanging outside with a rainbow flag declaring that “Black Lives Matter” and proclaiming it a sanctuary church — suggesting that both men made their mark.

Birth and rebirth at the ballet

Sharonjean Leeds returned to the stage in the finale of Smuin’s Christmas Ballet.

CULTURE BEAT | FRAN MORELAND JOHNS

The New Year was still a couple of weeks away when a unique celebration of birth, rebirth and family joy took place at Smuin Ballet’s annual Christmas Ballet at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Sebastian-Alexander Gottschalk, age one month, was in the audience when dancer Sharonjean Leeds, age 70+, spun her way across the stage in the traditional White Christmas finale.

Each had overcome more than a few odds to be there.

Sebastian arrived at Kaiser Hospital on November 14, eight weeks ahead of schedule. His mom,  Shaunte Gipson Gottschalk, is a nurse and was quick to get to the hospital when things indicated he might make an early appearance. His dad, Georg, who works with MuleSoft, a Salesforce company, was inconveniently on a plane in London, about to take off for India. “If you’re headed to India,” the doctor texted, “you’re going the wrong direction.” Several trips through international security and one Chicago connection later, Georg got home to meet his new son at one minute before midnight. Sebastian, who weighed in at 2 lbs., 2.7 oz., then spent his first few weeks in Kaiser’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit on Geary.

Baby and mom at his first ballet.

Soon after they got him home, the new parents looked at their tickets to the Christmas Ballet, a long family tradition, and decided to introduce Sebastian to Smuin. Bundled in a baby wrap, mittens and blanket, he snuggled his way happily through the performance.

Onstage in the finale was dancer Leeds, longtime ballet teacher at the University of San Francisco, who several years ago might have seemed unlikely to walk again. A fall in her Presidio Heights basement in 2016 left her with a pelvis broken in five places and a badly broken left arm. Once out of the hospital, she spent five weeks in rehab and two months with in-home care — but then set about getting back to dancing.

Leeds had last danced onstage in New Shoes, Old Souls, a piece for three women and one man choreographed by the late Michael Smuin and performed in the spring of 1999. She continues to take classes with the company. So when her husband, local dentist Rick Leeds, bid on a walk-on Christmas Ballet appearance at Smuin’s 2018 gala, artistic director Celia Fushille created a feature role in the finale instead.

Septuagenarian dancer and tiny audience member didn’t meet at the event. But both (with his parents speaking for Sebastian) agreed the event was a spectacular way to usher in the new year.

Pop-up gifts from Gwyneth

Goop Gifts offers a 24-karat golden dildo named Olga.

POPPING UP at 2241 Fillmore, next door to the Clay Theatre, and slated to remain there only until Christmas Eve, is a hot new spot for holiday shoppers: Goop Gifts. Shop curator and company founder actress Gwyneth Paltrow is both revered for her attention — and reviled for her overattention — to self-care.

She’s stocked the Fillmore shop with a collection from this year’s Goop Holiday Gift Guide — part of the lifestyle brand she started, she says, “as just sort of a way to share information.” One of her suggestions: a doctor-supervised treatment involving bee venom injections. “I had it done on my cesarean scar,” says Paltrow. “I had some buckling in the scar, and it really evened it out.” Outfitted with a moving conveyor belt laden with wrapped and displayed gifts, the Fillmore pop-up offers many quintessentially Paltrow items: dietary supplements, bath salts, makeup remover pads, edible pre-probiotic skin refiner and lots of things in pink and gold.

It also has on hand some gifts you might not have realized that person on your list really needs: a sneaker cleaning kit, a gold champagne cork puller, a digital luggage scale for those prone to overpacking, 24-karat gold rolling papers, as well as a 24-karat golden dildo named Olga, available for $3,490.

A test of faith

Rev. Debra Low-Skinner is vicar of Christ Church Sei Ko Kai on Alta Plaza Park.

By FRAN MORELAND JOHNS

“Our congregation reflects San Francisco,” says Senior Warden Gordon Park-Li of historic Christ Episcopal Church Sei Ko Kai, which graces the corner of Pierce and Clay Streets across from Alta Plaza Park’s grand staircase.

On any given Sunday, its small, warm sanctuary welcomes Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans and Americans of assorted other heritages. In a neighborhood where houses sell in the multiple millions, the stately Victorian home of Christ Church offers a unique link to the good and the bad of San Francisco’s past, as well as its constantly changing future.

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CPMC scaling back local plans

The hospital finally relented to neighborhood pressure and relocated a generator at its entry.

CONTRARY TO EARLIER PLANS, California Pacific Medical Center now says it will scale back its operations in the neighborhood when a new state-of-the-art hospital opens next year on Van Ness Avenue.

Patients are expected to move into the new hospital in early March. The current hospital will then concentrate on ambulatory care for patients who do not require overnight hospitalization. That will bring a reduction from 2,100 to fewer than 500 employees at the existing hospital on Buchanan Street, administrators say, and an expected 30 percent reduction in the number of people who visit the current complex. There will be fewer doctors, too, and the emergency room will move to the new hospital.

Earlier plans had called for an expansion of facilities in the neighborhood, including a new building for ambulatory care on Sacramento Street, where the aging Stanford building now stands, and a new parking garage.

No more. “No new construction is planned,” said Ameet Nanda, a hospital administrator. “We’ve scaled back our plans.”

After the new Van Ness building opens, the hospital will close its facilities out on California Street, near Laurel Village. Some of those operations, including women’s health and breast cancer specialists, will move to 2333 Buchanan, along with some outpatient surgery. But the fourth, fifth and sixth floors of the current hospital will be left empty, administrators said.

Neighbors who attended a community hearing at the hospital on July 11 were skeptical that hospital administrators were telling the full story. “To think that three floors of prime property in this neighborhood are going to be left empty defies belief,” said one.

The final days of Kelly Johnson

In the final minutes of his life, Kelly Johnson was surrounded by friends and family.

By ARASH MALEKZADEH

A month ago, I was offered the opportunity to film the last days of Kelly Johnson’s life. I did not know him. I did not know how or why his death was predetermined.

I was told to meet the next morning at Peet’s for coffee. Then I’d walk half a block with my equipment to a beautiful blue Victorian overlooking Fillmore Street where he’d lived since 1969. After climbing two flights of stairs, each step creaking with antiquity, I entered the top flat. I followed an oxygen tube strewn across the carpet.

Kelly Johnson sat on his red couch, calmly staring out the window, as I approached with my camera in hand. A smile stretched across his face as he greeted me. He was ready for his close up.

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Empowering youth to get involved

BOOKS | SABRINA MOYLE

When I was a teen I loved being creative, but I didn’t think creativity could change the world. We were told that the arts were frivolous. I didn’t think my voice mattered and, as a result, I didn’t speak up.

Fast forward to today: We’re riding a rising wave of youth activism. In Parkland, Florida, youth leadership has thrived on strong school arts programs in theater, music, journalism and debate. Like so many others, I am inspired by these youth, and now more convinced than ever that creativity can empower positive social change.

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The dancer is a designer

Photograph of Susan Roemer and her costumes by Leslie Irwin for Smuin Ballet

CULTURE BEAT | PAMELA FEINSILBER

Susan Roemer’s second act began before she completed act one. A dancer for nine years with Smuin Ballet, she started designing and sewing costumes for dancers, collaborating with choreographers within and outside the group, even before she retired from the company in 2016.

This month her work is on view in two world premiere ballets: Val Caniparoli’s “If I Were a Sushi Roll,” in Smuin’s season finale program at the Yerba Buena Center from April 20 to 29; and David Dawson’s “Anima Animus,” in S.F. Ballet’s Unbound B program at the War Memorial Opera House from April 21 to May 4.

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