The organization of a synagogue and related projects gave the San Francisco Bay Area Karaite community a firm institutional structure that it had lacked during the first twenty years of the Karaite presence in the United States. The lapse of organized communal religious life for a generation and the rapid assimilation and Americanization of younger members of the community ensured that despite efforts to maintain and reproduce the historical practices of the community in Cairo, the new synagogue would incorporate substantial novel elements into its services. The ritual core of the synagogue service in San Francisco maintains continuity with the Cairo tradition. The traditional prayer book is used, and prayers are recited in Hebrew with only an occasional informal English commentary. No significant liturgical innovations were introduced, and Joe Pessah endeavored to maintain a unified singing style.
About thirty to forty people participated in regular weekly Saturday morning services in San Francisco when I attended periodically from 1991 to 1993. As in the Rabbanite tradition, the core of the service is the reading of the weekly Torah portion. Because no one in the community could chant the weekly portion reading from an unvoweled handwritten Torah scroll, Joe Pessah and others read from a voweled printed volume. Great attention was lavished on correct pronunciation and cantilation of the text.
The Karaite pronunciation of Hebrew is distinctive, more antique than modern Hebrew, and closer to the sound of Arabic. Karaites continue to pronounce the velarized s for the tzadik, the semiguttural h for het, and the j for a dotted gimel. Because the Karaites do not operate their own religious school, children who have studied Hebrew in the United States have learned the standard modern Israeli pronunciation of Hebrew at religious schools of various Reform or Conservative congregations. Knowledgeable and concerned parents and elders have tried to rectify the children's Hebrew pronunciation. But many children become confused during prayers in the synagogue. It is considered sinful to make an uncorrected error while publicly reading from the Torah, and some senior members of the congregation extend their concern over correct pronunciation to the recitation of prayers. Although I tried to use the Karaite pronunciation of Hebrew when attending the San Francisco synagogue, my pronunciation was sometimes corrected and even preempted lest I make a predictable error.
In Cairo, most women did not study Hebrew, receive formal religious training, or attend synagogue regularly. When women did attend, the separation of men and women in the synagogue was observed. In San Francisco, some women continued to refrain from regular synagogue attendance. Even though her husband was one of the most active members of the community, Nelly Masliah did not attend Sabbath services unless there was a special occasion like a bar mitzvah.
The San Francisco synagogue gestured in the direction of traditional gender separation, although the physical structure of the building imposed a degree of proximity that would have been unacceptable in Cairo. The former living room of the home served as the main prayer hall. A sign at the entry to the living room announced, “This is a kosher place for prayer. Women enter through the kitchen.” Observing this instruction allowed women to assume their places in the dining room of the house, directly behind the living room and not physically separated from it, without entering the living room. Nearly half those who attended services were women, some of whom recited their prayers in loud and energetic voices, a marked departure from the Cairo custom.
At the conclusion of the reading of the weekly Torah portion, there was a break in the service. Every congregant then rose and shook the hand of everyone else present and conveyed the traditional greeting, shabat shalom (a peaceful Sabbath). Individuals who had entered the synagogue at different times and did not have an opportunity to speak before prayers briefly exchanged social news. During this time, men and women spoke to each other, shook each other's hands, and crossed into previously gender-segregated spaces. After the greetings were completed, men and women withdrew to their segregated spaces, and the service resumed. The positive value of strengthening the bonds of the community by the greeting ritual was apparently judged to supersede the importance of strictly maintaining the traditional gender segregation of space in the synagogue.
After services, everyone went to the basement of the house and shared a large meal featuring traditional Egyptian cuisine. There were often comments about the excellence of particular dishes or the fact that only certain individuals remembered how to make a special dish properly. This is not necessarily an indication that people actually forgot what they once knew. Even in Egypt, not every woman was equally proficient in the kitchen, although the tone of voice with which such matters were discussed suggested the opposite. This feature of Karaite social life differs little from Rabbanite Jewish customs. Comparing culinary skill in preparing traditional dishes is a prominent component of community chitchat at nearly any Jewish social gathering where food is served. Conversations during the meal were held in Arabic, French, and English.
None of the children and teenagers speaks any Arabic, though several understand some of the spoken language. Some of the teenagers are highly Americanized. It is unclear whether enough of them have the knowledge and commitment to resist assimilationist pressures and maintain the distinctiveness of the Karaite tradition once the generation that remembers the life and customs of the community in Egypt departs.
On several occasions when I attended the synagogue, I used the meal and social time after prayers to make arrangements to meet and interview people in their homes. Writing is prohibited on the Sabbath, but I would always bring a pen and paper. I knew that I would be able to remember names, addresses, and dates for only a limited time. So I planned to write down my appointments and any other interesting information in my car after leaving the synagogue and before driving home. Because I did not want to take out a pen and paper in the synagogue building, I was embarrassed when the most devout leading members of the congregation asked me if I would like them to write down for me their addresses and directions to their homes. Although I am not religiously observant, I did not want to ask people to violate their religious beliefs on my behalf.
Joe Pessah explained to me that in the United States certain accommodations of this sort were necessary in order to preserve the community. In Cairo, everyone walked to the synagogue because riding in a vehicle is prohibited on the Sabbath. But some people drove as many as fifty miles to attend Sabbath services in San Francisco. He thought that it was much better to encourage such people to drive and attend synagogue because it was obviously impossible for them to do so if they did not drive.
Other ritual innovations practiced by the San Francisco Bay Area Karaites include the institution of bat mitzvah ceremonies. Joe Pessah's mother, Sarina Pessah, did learn Hebrew in Cairo but did not have a bat mitzvah because the community did not observe this rite of passage. She commemorated the opening of the new synagogue in Daly City and her seventieth birthday by celebrating her bat mitzvah.
Some leading members of the community now celebrate Hanukah in their homes. “I never knew about Hanukah until we came here,” said Fred Lichaa. “It was too much to compete with Hanukah and Christmas. It was easier to say [to the children], ‘You'll get your gift at Hanukah.’” 
The San Francisco Karaite community and its leaders are guided by an attitude of flexible pragmatism. Their supreme value is preserving the existence of the community, and they are prepared to compromise strict observance of rituals in order to promote this objective. Thus, the San Francisco community observes what might be regarded as “reform Karaism.” No one has attempted to articulate the legitimacy of this practice in the same way that the Rabbanite Reform and Conservative rites have justified their departures from Orthodoxy. The Karaite community of San Francisco can live with this contradiction because, as in all Middle Eastern Jewish communities, membership is defined by acceptance of the authority of the acknowledged leadership and the belief that ethnoreligious identity is ascriptive and permanent. Piety and precision of observance are desirable, but not necessary for membership in the community. Some Karaite leaders aspire to preserve the traditions and customs of the community as they remember them being practiced in Cairo; others are aware that some changes are inevitable. The social adaptations necessary to maintain a community in the United States make it unlikely that the practices of the Cairo community will ever be fully reproduced, even if the Karaites succeed in passing their traditions on to the second American-born generation.