New Kids on the Block

Chabad makes an entrance in one of San Francisco's most rapidly-changing regions


New Kids on the Block

Rabbi Langer prepares to light the "Bill Graham Menorah​," which has stood in Union Square, San Francisco since 1975.

by Chava Lieba Witkes - San Francisco, CA

May 11, 2017

As far as neighborhoods go, South of Market does not have the best reputation. The half-square-mile area is patchwork of abandoned warehouses and organic juice bars, where the homeless share sidewalks with robotics engineers fresh out of Stanford. It is not uncommon to spot a luxury condo development next door to public housing units. Such are indications of a city in transition.

Yet of all places, this is where Chabad of San Francisco chose to expand their reach—an area that law enforcement calls “the toughest block in town.” On StreetAdvisor, a website that ranks blocks according to metrics like safety, cleanliness, and “neighborly spirit,” SoMa was given a 3.8 out of 10.

Enter Rabbi Yosef Langer, the San Francisco shliach known for his motorcycle riding and love for the Grateful Dead—he once handed out apples and honey at a concert to increase awareness about Rosh Hashanah. “We have a very optimistic view of this location,” Langer explains. “We’re calling our building project after the Bob Dylan song: Positively Sixth Street.”

The rabbi’s confidence is not unfounded. The city of San Francisco recently launched The Central SoMa Plan to “create a sustainable neighborhood by 2040.” That includes 50,000 jobs, 7,500 housing units, and up to $2 billion in public benefits. “We’re rebuilding a broken city,” Rabbi Langer declares triumphantly.

With the mayor pumping money into the area, more signs are springing up. Across from Chabad’s new 4,000-square-foot center is a kosher bakery, Frena. “In a few years this street is going to look completely different,” predicts Isaac Yosef, the Israeli-born owner, who offers customers challah and sufganiyot along with authentic Mediterranean eats like sabich and sambusak.

It’s all part of Rabbi Langer’s vision to bring a community together. Excited as he is about the new space, “it’s just brick and mortar,” he acknowledges. “A community is built with people.”

It’s program directors Rabbi Shmulik and Tzippy Friedman who spend most of their days thinking about those relationships. The majority of Jews in the area are single twenty-somethings with full social calendars. “They’re not the typical shul-going crowd,” Shmulik explains.

Engaging millenials is a unique challenge, one that most organizations have started to give serious thought to as of late. “It’s hard to get this demographic involved on a deep level,” Tzippy says. “Everyone around here is very independent ... extremely career-focused.”

Good thing Rabbi Langer and his team are undaunted by such challenges. “Getting people in the door for Shabbat services definitely requires a bit of creative thinking,” admits Moshe Langer, assistant director. “But we’re from San Francisco; we know how to think outside the box.”

Instead of the traditional synagogue model, Friday nights start off with a happy hour, then transitions seamlessly into candle-lighting and prayer. “I love coming by Chabad to see friends. I’ve met a lot of Jews just from coming every week,” says Karina Levitian, who is also an involved AIPAC member. She’s not the only regular at Friday nights—Shabbat typically draws upward of 100 people.

Watching these young Jews meeting other Jews at Chabad, forging friendships and sometimes even romantic relationships, gives the Friedmans much pride. “It’s all worth it for those Jewish babies,” Shmulik says with a laugh. He’s only half-joking, of course: the reality of intermarriage is an all too real one for anyone working within the Jewish community.

That’s why the Friedmans try to balance numbers with connections. “We still like to have a few people over to our home for Shabbat dinner,” Tzippy explains. “There’s nothing like the bonding that happens around a table.”

As the area develops and the community grows, the juggling act will continue for Rabbi Langer and his team. The building plans accommodate these optimistic expectations: its second phase, currently underway, includes a mikvah, community kitchen, and even a playroom—for those Jewish kids to come.

“Chabad will be the cornerstone of this community,” predicts Rabbi Langer.

To learn more about Chabad of San Francisco, visit www.ChabadSF.org.

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