By Andrew Nusbaum
I am told that people like me are rare. First, I am a native San Franciscan who still lives here, at a time when most of my peers have had to move out of the city or burrow underground to save on rent. As if that weren’t odd enough, I am under thirty and belong to a synagogue. Not only that, I regularly attend services! And am on the board, serve as co-treasurer, and help with various activities, and so on. According to various pundits and surveys, people like me shouldn’t exist.
I grew up about 40 blocks away (just up the street) in a secular family with a mezuzah on the door, a menorah at Hanukkah, and burritos for Passover (not instead of matzah, just because my parents didn’t know what day it was). I never attended Hebrew school or received a Jewish education. I didn’t go to Jewish summer camp and haven’t been on Birthright. The Pew study would say I shouldn’t even know what a synagogue is, much less be on the board of one.
In eighth grade I read Chaim Potok’s The Chosen and was fascinated by the rituals and community it described. It turned out Jewishness and Judaism went far deeper than just not having a Christmas tree! In high school I started reading everything about Judaism I could find. I started going to High Holiday services with a friend’s family. I traced my family’s Jewish roots back to New York and Poland. In college I celebrated holidays and Shabbat with friends and the Jewish student group. After college my wife Amanda and I came back to San Francisco and started looking for a community.
I’d love to say we fell in love with B’nai Emunah’s charm right away, but that’s not precisely true. We appreciated the warm welcome from Jeff and Cantor Linda and Henry, of course, but back then, without a rabbi, and with very few young people, we weren’t sure how well we fit in here. So we continued to shul-hop, eventually making it to every non-Orthodox synagogue in the city. Some places had nicer buildings, some had a younger crowd, some had more modern music, but none of them quite “clicked” for us. Something always seemed to be missing. After 5 years of celebrating High Holidays at a different shul every year, my wife pointed out that I couldn’t just walk in and expect a community to be perfect, that this just wasn’t the way synagogues (or churches) worked. “You have to commit to something and work to make it better!” she said. She’s smart.
When we started visiting B’nai Emunah again, we noticed how different it felt. Rabbi Mark and his family were invigorating the congregation with new energy. Membership had expanded and now included more people in their 20s and 30s. There was a range of programs and opportunities to get involved. Most impressively, despite some changes, B’nai Emunah continued to be defined by its accepting and non-judgmental spirit.
Despite our city’s open reputation, we have found that not every community is necessarily as welcoming as they advertise. At one shul we visited, people were too busy talking to their friends to even say hello to visitors. At another, the rabbi told Amanda, right after meeting her, that he’d “be happy to convert her!” B’nai Emunah has welcomed us unconditionally and let us both grow Jewishly at our own pace, and never made either of us feel uncomfortable because of our backgrounds. We are living in a time when almost everyone is a “Jew-by-choice” in one way or another. It is inspiring to belong to a community that means it when they say everyone is Jewish enough for —and welcome at—B’nai Emunah.
As a younger person, it is also encouraging to be part of a congregation that encourages new ideas and voices. As my friend Shais says, “If you want to see something here, you just do it.” One example is our Cab Shabbat service, which evolved from a brief conversation with the rabbi, then an impromptu service at the synagogue retreat, to now a regular monthly event. There were no hoops to jump through, no committees to convince, no gatekeepers. The rabbi and the community were open to the idea and gave us the freedom to try something new. This same trust and opportunity for ownership was present at our Young Leadership “Dream Team.” The nine of us ranged from our 20s through 40s, married, single, and with children. Some of us had been members for years; others had just recently joined. Some of us were board members or attended services regularly, others came when they could. Somewhere else we might have been subdivided into all sorts of different demographics, but at B’nai Emunah the only thing that really mattered was that all of us were seen as having something valuable to contribute.
B’nai Emunah is never going to be a mega-shul. However this creates a special opportunity for everyone who walks through its doors. Here, we have a chance to become connected and create authentic community. Here people can get to know each other, encourage each other, comfort each other, and learn from each other. From our very beginnings we have never fit into a single mold, and I believe that this identity has been key to our ongoing openness to others.
After spending some time on the board, I have come to the radical realization that B’nai Emunah is not perfect. The surveys we sent out over the last year have been a great source of information and input from the congregation. I would like to close by giving you the same challenge my wife gave me two years ago: this year, find a way to help make BE better. If you have an idea, a suggestion, something you want to try, some way you want to grow, or think you know someone that might enjoy spending time in our community, please, let us know. If you have been trying to find a way to get involved, please, reach out. If there is something you feel is missing here, help us work to make it happen. This year, let’s make our slogan be, “Stretch, don’t kvetch!” We can only call B’nai Emunah “ours” if we all take ownership for it.
Lots of places talk about being welcoming and encouraging their congregants to get involved, but B’nai Emunah gives you a chance to really live it. I am proud to be part of our community, I think it has a lot to offer, and I sincerely hope we will all continue to support it and each other.
I wish you all an easy fast, happy chagim, and a sweet and meaningful New Year.