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There’s a new Sherith in town

New cantor David Frommer and new senior rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf.

New cantor David Frommer and new senior rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf.


I grew up in this neighborhood. I used to go to Gino’s grocery store at Fillmore and Jackson after school to get gummy worms in the ’80s when they were all the rage. I’ve walked around this neighborhood for years — decades, in fact. And now, I’m delighted to be back here in a new capacity.

Last month, a new clergy team was installed at Congregation Sherith Israel, at the corner of California and Webster Streets. Friends and congregants gathered for a Sabbath service on September 16, followed by festivities and food that honored the different cultures of San Francisco. About 600 people participated.

Who would have thought, just shy of 30 years after I became bat mitzvah in this community, that I would stand in the same spot being installed as the 10th senior rabbi of Congregation Sherith Israel?

• I am the first senior rabbi who proudly hangs a Sunday School diploma on the wall.

• I am the first senior rabbi who interned here as a rabbinical student.

• And I am the first senior rabbi to wear a dress for installation — at least as far as I know.

As we’ve been saying, there’s a new Sherith in town.

Our congregation is 165 years old. We have been in our beautiful building for more than 110 years. It was consecrated on September 24, 1905 — not quite six months before our city’s most famous earthquake. Our sanctuary withstood that earthquake and the subsequent ones. Phase 2 of our seismic retrofit is underway now to ensure that this building will withstand future earthquakes and be here for generations to come.

But Sherith Israel is about much more than our 120-foot high dome, our 3,500 organ pipes or our 1,109 light bulbs. We are a community of people seeking to, in the words of the prophet Micah, “Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.”

Many years ago, I went on a Passover retreat in Moab, Utah. We climbed steep sandstone inclines and slithered under boulders, heading to the rock arch under which we would begin our seder. During the climb, on the side of a sandstone cliff, the group gathered. I learned a most important lesson, one that has stayed with me. “Offer the person next to you a hand, even if you don’t think it’s needed,” the leader instructed us. “And take the hand offered, even if you don’t need it.”

An urban San Francisco kid who had been living in New York for 20 years, I did need the hand, I thought, as I looked at the ladders carved into the cliff ahead. Suddenly, a hand was extended, and I took it — scrambling up an impossible looking ladder. Not only did I make it to the arch,  but I went back the following year.

So here we find ourselves, on our own sandstone cliff, looking up at the ladder ahead, wondering how we’ll possibly climb it. The answer: Offer the person next to you a hand, even if you don’t think it’s needed. And take the hand offered, even if you don’t need it.

Together, we will become the community we dream of being.