The San Francisco and Daly City Synagogues
By 1991, the KJA was institutionally stable and sufficiently solvent to purchase a house in San Francisco's Sunset district to serve as a synagogue and community center. Joe Pessah led services there on Saturdays and festivals. Prayers were not held on Friday evenings because many congregants had to drive long distances to reach the synagogue. Travelling times on Friday evenings were unpredictable due to the start of the weekend rush hour, so it was impossible to gather a substantial number of congregants. In Cairo, those who attended synagogue only once a week would typically come on Friday evening. In San Francisco, Saturday morning services became the primary weekly prayer gathering. The annual Purim party is a particularly important occasion because it is an attractive event for the children of the community. For the children, celebrating Purim is both fulfillment of a religious duty (commemorating the deliverance of the Jews from Haman) and “fun” in secular American terms.
The purchase of a building was an important step forward in crystallizing the Karaite community and regularizing its religious observances and social occasions. But the leaders of the synagogue were dissatisfied with the limitations of the building. The neighbors of the synagogue, many of them Asian Americans, objected to the Karaites' plans to expand their building to allow construction of a social hall. The neighbors justified their opposition on the grounds that this would increase the flow of traffic on weekends and holidays. But some Karaites regarded the neighbors' objections as anti-Semitism.
The Karaite synagogue coped with this situation without resolving it for several years. Then a rare opportunity presented itself when a synagogue in Daly City, a suburb of San Francisco, disbanded and put its building up for sale. In June 1994, the KJA purchased the premises of the former Congregation B'nai Israel; their offer was accepted even though it was not the highest bid because the leaders of Congregation B'nai Israel preferred to maintain the Jewish character of the building. Purchase of the new synagogue building necessitated a vigorous fund-raising campaign. Karaites throughout the United States contributed or loaned over $100,000 to the KJA to finance the transaction, enabling the KJA to sell its San Francisco house and celebrate Rosh ha-Shanah of 5755 (1994) in its new quarters in Daly City.
The formal organization of the Karaite community facilitated its recognition by other American Jewish rites. In 1984, the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly resolved that Karaites should be regarded as Jews as long as they did not reject Rabbanite tradition. The Reform rabbinate adopted a similar decision. In fact, there are sharp divergences in certain Karaite and Rabbanite customs, which this formulation avoids addressing. For example, Karaites do not celebrate Hanukah, a particularly prominent festival in American Jewish life, on the grounds that the holiday is not mentioned in the Torah. Its historical origins are in the postbiblical era. The Karaites also reject the calendrical reforms introduced by the rabbis in the ninth century, and their holidays may fall at slightly different times than the Rabbanite festivals. Hence, the decisions of the Reform and Conservative rabbis express a spirit of goodwill toward the Karaites without fully accepting the validity of their tradition. Even this somewhat conditional acceptance has allowed the Karaites to gain gradual recognition as part of the Jewish community of the San Francisco Bay Area. In 1995, the Northern California Jewish Bulletin began to include the KJA in its weekly list of Jewish congregations in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The character of Karaite Jewish identity remains religiously, politically, and culturally distinctive. For most American Jews, support for Israel is the most prominent expression of their Jewish identity. Visiting Israel for a summer has become an important rite of passage for Jewish teenagers of the San Francisco Bay Area. The Karaites certainly support the state of Israel. They visit and maintain close ties with their relatives and the official leadership of the Karaite communities there. But the core of their identity as Jews is their religious commitment and their cultural heritage. Their Jewishness is not dependent on their political relationship with Israel, certainly not with the leaders of the state. Few American Jews except the ultraorthodox are willing or able to preserve their identity in the same terms.
Jehoash Hirshberg has explained the central role of liturgy and paraliturgical songs in maintaining the continuity of Karaite tradition in the San Francisco Bay Area Karaite community since its buildings, institutions, and books were all left behind in Egypt. Joe Pessah is primarily responsible for liturgical matters. He consciously strives to preserve the purity of the Karaite liturgy and other customs from outside influences because the Karaite tradition in the United States is a young and fragile transplant liable to be destroyed by the excessive integration of Rabbanite or other exogenous practices. Pessah makes a clear distinction between traditional Karaite tunes and Egyptian folk melodies, which the Karaites of Israel appear to have freely integrated into their paraliturgical songs. Nonetheless, Pessah and other community members encourage their children to listen to commercial recordings of Egyptian music so that American-born Karaites will be familiar with their cultural roots and be exposed to an alternative to contemporary Western music and what they regard as its associated negative influences. Joe and Remy Pessah also maintain close contact with Egypt through regular reading of popular Egyptian magazines like Ruz al-Yusuf and Uktubir, which they shared with me when I visited their home.
Such continuing attachments to Arabo-Egyptian culture are common among members of the community who grew up in Egypt. Jacob Masliah fondly recalled that his geometry teacher was the brother of renowned novelist Naguib Mahfouz and that the Mahfouz family lived near his childhood home in ‘Abbasiyya. An older member of the community advised me that if I wished to improve my Arabic pronunciation, he would be glad to lend me his set of audiotapes of Qur’an chanting. Just as Muslims do, he considered the language of the Qur’an to be an ideal form of Arabic. He recalled that at school he had been the best student in his class in Arabic grammar and poetry, and he was proud that when he visited Muslim Egyptians, they were surprised by his retention of excellent Arabic despite having left Egypt thirty-six years ago. He brought to the synagogue a large pile of current Arabic dailies (al-Ahram, al-Hayat, al-Sharq al-Awsat, and al-Watan), whose contents he shared with other members of the congregation during the meal after the services. As I was preparing to leave the synagogue, he passed them on to me to help keep my knowledge of Egypt current.