Welcome to our magnificent sanctuary
Sherith Israel is spacious and grand like the pioneer West that birthed the congregation. After outgrowing its 1870 home on Post and Taylor streets in downtown San Francisco, the congregation moved west with the population, acquiring our current site on the corner of California and Webster streets in 1902.
Albert Pissis, an architect trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, designed the new sanctuary. He used elements of Classical Revival, Romanesque and Islamic styles, typical of American synagogue architecture at the time. Working under Pissis’s direction, the Sherith Israel design team envisioned the synagogue as a unified whole, the art and architecture supporting and enhancing each other. Their creation stands today, more than 110 years later, as one of the treasures of American synagogue design.
Consecrated on September 24, 1905, the building opened to rave reviews in the local newspapers. While improvements have been made through the years, including recent seismic retrofit work, the sanctuary has been preserved as close to its original design as possible. Sherith Israel was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2012.
Sherith Israel by the numbers
The building cost $250,000 to build in 1904-1905. It stands 120 feet above California Street. The majestic dome is more than 60-feet wide at its outside diameter. The interior contains 20,000 square feet of space, 3,500 organ pipes, 1,400 seats, 1,109 decorative light bulbs, more than 89 ornamental leaded glass windows and 32 arched clear-glass windows in the outer drum.
Withstanding San Francisco’s great quakes
During the 1906 earthquake, the building sustained modest damage which was quickly repaired. The October 1989 Loma Prieta quake did not damage Sherith Israel. Nonetheless, the City of San Francisco mandated that buildings like ours meet stringent seismic standards. The first phase of our seismic work was completed in 2011. The congregation is now completing its Seismic Retrofit Campaign to conclude the work.
An interior that glows with superb craftsmanship
The sanctuary is a sampler of exquisite early 20th-century craftsmanship. It includes carved Honduran mahogany on the bimah, ark and pews; bronze light fixtures; polished marble floors; and stained oak doors and trim. The vibrant, warm colors and intricate frescoes on the sanctuary walls and dome display a strong Sephardic or Spanish revival influence. The interior was painted under the guidance of artist Attilio Moretti. His collaboration with the architect and window designers resulted in a beautifully integrated work of synagogue art.
Classic Judaic symbols line the ring of the dome. They include the Ten Commandments, a Shabbat menorah, shofar, Torah, lulav, eternal light, Megillah scroll, Chanukah menorah, a column representing the first Temple, washing of hands, and a priestly breastplate noting the 12 tribes of Israel, Two essential benedictions—gold-leafed in Hebrew—flank the bimah:
The Lord shall guard thy going out and thy coming in, from this time forth and forever. — Psalms 121:8
May the Lord bless you and protect you.
May the Lord deal kindly and graciously with you.
May the Lord bestow his favor upon you and grant you peace.
Additionally, like a call to action, the well-loved passage from Micah (6:8) surrounds the base of the dome.
“It hath been told thee, o man, what is good – to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with thy God.”
Stained glass gems
East window: Morning light shining through the great half-circle window to the east reminds us of the mitzvah of tikkun olam, repairing the world. The window depicts a biblical community embracing its needy and includes the inspiring words of the prophet Isaiah: "Feed the hungry, clothe the naked and shelter the homeless."
West window: This dramatic work, "Moses Presented the Ten Commandments to the Children of Israel," was designed by Paris-trained artist Emile Pissis, brother of architect Albert Pissis. Emile created a movie-star handsome Moses, red robe flowing, surrounded by vibrant tribal flags and the Hebrew people. But instead of standing at Sinai, the Jewish people are gathered on granite rocks at the gateway to Yosemite, Half Dome and El Capitan in the distance. This is a modern Moses, and California is the Promised Land.
In preparation for the building’s centennial in 2005, several art historians studied Sherith Israel’s stained glass windows. The identity of the glass artist/s was unknown until congregants Joan Libman and Ian Berke discovered an invoice for $1,100 made out to Emile Pissis. Emile, who frequently painted scenes of Yosemite, designed the Moses window on the west wall and seven other windows in the sanctuary.
Murray Harris organ
Organs became part of the Reform musical tradition in 19th-century Germany, leading to a flowering of Jewish musical composition. The sanctuary with its choir loft and organ showcased this rich musical heritage.
In 1904 Sherith Israel purchased the organ for $18,000 from the Murray M. Harris Co. of Los Angeles. Long considered one of the treasures of American organ building, it is still in perfect working order. Other organs by Harris’s company include Stanford University’s instrument built in 1901 and the core of the famed Wanamaker Organ in Philadelphia, originally created as the world’s largest organ for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.
Behind the organ's magnificent facade, a gigantic mechanism supports and controls more than 3,500 pipes that vary in length from six inches to sixteen feet. The organ contains over 15,000 board feet of choice white pine and hardwoods, more than 50 miles of electrical wire, five tons of metal and enough leather to make 10,000 pairs of fine lady's gloves. The keys and stops are made of pure ivory. The decoration of the pipes and the carving of the elaborate console were all completed by hand. The most unusual mechanical feature of the instrument is its electrical action. It uses the principals of telephone signals to control thousands of valves that operate the pipes.
Architect and artists
Albert Pissis, FAIA (1852-1914): One of the more renowned architects of his time, Pissis trained at L’École de Beaux Arts in Paris. His San Francisco work includes the Emporium, now the site of the Westfield San Francisco Shopping Center on Market Street; the Flood Building; Hibernia Bank; the Humboldt Bank Building and the Mechanics’ Institute.
Emile Pissis (1854-1934): The architect’s brother, Emile Pissis designed Sherith Israel’s renowned west window and several other of the synagogue’s opalescent stained-glass windows. One of his award-winning paintings, Discovery of the Bay by Gaspar de Portola, was recently discovered hidden away in the museum of the Society of California Pioneers when Sherith Israel began to research its artistic history. Despite living and painting into the 1930s, the only surviving work by Emile Pissis consists of the Sherith Israel windows, two paintings at the Society of California Pioneers and nine watercolors held by the Fine Arts Museums in San Francisco.
Attilio Moretti (1852-1915): The Italian-born artist responsible for Sherith Israel’s frescoes is Attilio Moretti. Most of Moretti’s work in other buildings, including many noted Catholic churches around the state, have been lost. The frescoes at Sherith Israel are considered the last examples of Moretti's prolific career.
Thanks to Joan Libman and Ian Berke for researching Sherith Israel’s artistic history.