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Congregation Sherith Israel: Pioneering since 1851

Gold Rush roots

In September 1849, mere months after the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill but still a year before California became a state, a small band of Jewish pioneers gathered in a wood-framed tent. They lacked rabbis and Torah scrolls but were determined to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

These young Jews came from Prussia, Bavaria, England, France and the eastern United States. They worshiped together again during Passover and the High Holy Days in 1850, formed two benevolent societies to aid the needy and bought land for a cemetery.

Sherith Israel’s founding and early years

In April 1851, San Francisco’s frontier Jews met again, this time to form a permanent congregation and elect officers. In typical fashion they split almost immediately, forming two synagogues. Congregation Sherith Israel followed the minhag Polen or Polish traditions of Jews from Posen in Prussia. Congregation Emanu-El chose to worship according to the German practices of Jews from Bavaria. The synagogues have been friendly neighbors ever since.

As San Francisco boomed, keeping Sherith Israel housed proved a challenge. The congregation’s first temporary home, like much of the city, was destroyed by the “Great Fire” of 1851. Fire destroyed its next temporary home, as well. In 1854, the fledgling congregation built its first permanent house of worship on Stockton Street between Broadway and Vallejo for $10,000.

By the end of the 1850s, so many Jews had left Europe for San Francisco that almost 10 percent of the city’s population was Jewish—a higher percentage (briefly) than in New York. After the Civil War, another generation sought its fortune in California. Sherith Israel moved to an impressive Gothic-style structure on Post and Taylor Streets where it remained from 1870 to 1905.

Moving toward Reform

Initially Orthodox in the Polish style, Sherith Israel took major steps toward becoming a Reform congregation while on Post Street. In a visible departure from tradition, the new sanctuary was designed for mixed seating of men and women. Gradually, with much discussion and struggle, wearing a kippah became optional, Friday evening services were initiated, a choir introduced and a new prayerbook chosen. Two dynamic rabbis hastened the move toward Reform—Rabbi Henry Vidaver (1873-1882) and Rabbi Jacob Nieto (1893-1930). In 1903, as ground was broken for Sherith Israel’s current site on California Street, the congregation made the changes official and joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now the Union for Reform Judaism.

A sanctuary for the 20th century and beyond

On September 24, 1905, the magnificent domed sanctuary was consecrated. Nearly 2,000 people saw Rabbi Jacob Nieto place a Torah scroll into the ark and heard him dedicate the building “to the service of God, country and humanity.” The San Francisco Chronicle called it “one of the finest Jewish temples in America.”

The Reform synagogue, home to superb examples of opalescent stained glass, elaborate stenciled frescoes, hand-carved Honduran mahogany and a majestic Murray Harris organ, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012.

1906: earthquake and fire

Just half a year later, in the early morning of April 18, the Great Quake of 1906 rocked San Francisco. Fortunately the Sherith Israel sanctuary, as well constructed as it was beautiful, sustained little damage during the quake and the fires that followed. Post-fire, with no City Hall or Hall of Justice, San Francisco called upon Sherith Israel’s grand sanctuary to house the city’s courts for 18 months. The famous corruption trial of San Francisco political boss Abe Ruef took place here. Years later in 1945, Sherith Israel provided a grand setting for a meeting of American Jewish leaders gathered in support of the founding of the United Nations.

A modern congregation in a classic home

In 1972 Rabbi Martin Weiner became the senior rabbi of Congregation Sherith Israel. He attracted many new families and young singles to California Street. Known for his quest for social justice and his activism on behalf of civil and human rights, Rabbi Weiner was involved in the effort to rescue and resettle Jews from the former Soviet Union. During the 1980s under the leadership of then-associate Rabbi Alice Goldfinger (later Dubinsky), Sherith Israel developed HaMotzi, a volunteer program to feed the homeless. Our kitchen has also been home to Chicken Soupers—volunteers who work with Jewish Family and Children’s Services to bring nutritious food to people who are chronically ill, infirm and homebound.

1989: Loma Prieta quake triggers city mandate

On October 17, 1989, the earth shook. Again Sherith Israel stood firm. The quake served as a wakeup call: San Francisco mandated that unreinforced masonry buildings, like ours, meet strict new standards for seismic safety. Many historic religious communities faced a choice—do the mandated work or close their doors.

For Sherith Israel there was never a choice. Our design team—ELS Architecture and Urban Design, and engineers Wiss Janney Elstner Associates—developed innovative designs that satisfied San Francisco’s mandate and preserved the unique beauty of our sanctuary. The plan was approved in March 2010, and the first phase of seismic retrofit work was completed in 2011, the second phase was completed in 2017. The congregation is now able to focus on enhancing our facilities and keep faith with both our pioneering generations and the generations to come.

Welcoming a diverse community

With changing Jewish demographics in the broader community—high rates of intermarriage and low rates of affiliation—Sherith Israel, under the leadership of Rabbi Larry Raphael (2003-2016), created a welcoming spiritual home for interfaith couples and families. In a departure from past custom, Rabbi Raphael performed Jewish weddings for interfaith couples. He also acknowledged the important role that many non-Jewish partners play in raising Jewish children and supporting Jewish continuity by initiating a tradition of honoring non-Jewish members during High Holy Day services.

Embracing the future

On July 1, 2016, Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf became our tenth senior rabbi and the first woman to occupy that role, the congregation looks forward to an exciting new chapter in its long history under the spiritual leadership of a new generation.

San Francisco has always been the place where new happened. Sherith Israel was founded in California Gold Rush and has been part of San Francisco every step of the way, marrying the newest innovations to thousands of years of Jewish history. Our leaders and staff are constantly working to create a relevant community for meaningful Jewish exploration.

New to town, new to Judaism, or just new to Sherith Israel? Visit us. Come for a tour of the building, an event for young families or join us for a Friday night service. Whatever your background, identity or level of knowledge, we have the right amount of spice to be your new Jewish home. 

Fri, May 24 2024 16 Iyar 5784