Congregation Sherith Israel (San Francisco, California)

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Temple Sherith Israel
Sherith Israel Sanctuary Photo.jpg
Main Sanctuary – Gallery and Dome (SE aspect)
Basic information
Location 2266 California Street
San Francisco, CA, 94115-2184
 United States
Geographic coordinates 37°47′22.08″N 122°25′54.52″W / 37.7894667°N 122.4318111°W / 37.7894667; -122.4318111 (Temple Sherith Israel)
Affiliation Reform Judaism
Year consecrated September 24, 1905
Status Active
Leadership Senior Rabbi Lawrence Raphael, Associate Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller
Architectural description
Architect(s) Albert Pissis
Architectural type Synagogue
Architectural style Beaux-Arts, Byzantine and Romanesque Revival
Direction of façade South
Groundbreaking October 8, 1903
Construction cost $250,000
Capacity 1,385
Length 128 ft (39.01 m)
Width 100 ft (30.48 m)
Height (max) 140 ft (42.67 m)
Dome(s) 1
Dome height (outer) 50 ft (15.24 m)
Dome dia. (outer) 60 ft (18.29 m)
Materials Brick foundation and exterior with Colusa sandstone veneer, steel cage frame, wood frame interior with lath and plaster surfaces, stained glass windows, slate roof
U.S. National Register of Historic Places
Added to NRHP March 31, 2010
NRHP Reference no. 10000114

Congregation Sherith Israel ("loyal remnant of Israel") is one of the oldest synagogues in the United States. It was established during California’s Gold Rush period and reflects the ambitions of early Jewish settlers to San Francisco. Today it is a congregation widely known for its innovative approach to worship and lifecycle celebrations and is part of the movement of Reform Judaism. Its historic sanctuary building is one of San Francisco's most prominent architectural landmarks and attracts visitors from all over the world.

Sanctuary building[edit]

In the 1890s, Congregation Sherith Israel faced the prospect of outgrowing its 1870 Gothic Revival-style synagogue on Post Street. Heeding this realization, congregational leaders first secured property on the northeast corner of California and Webster Streets on September 8, 1902, then hired École des Beaux Arts-trained architect Albert Pissis to draw up plans for a new temple. Ground was broken on October 8, 1903, and the cornerstone was laid on February 22, 1904. The sanctuary was officially consecrated on September 24, 1905. While improvements have been made through the ensuing years, the building has been preserved close to its original construction.

Temple Sherith Israel, a fusion of Byzantine and Romanesque forms, cost $250,000 to build in 1904–1905. The structure stands 140 feet (43 m) above California Street. Its signature dome – which can be seen from many vantage points throughout San Francisco – is 60 feet (18 m) wide at its outside diameter. The sanctuary's interior contains 20,000 square feet (1,900 m2) of space, 3,500 organ pipes, nearly 1,400 seats, 1,109 decorative light bulbs, more than 89 ornamental leaded glass windows and 32 arched clear glass windows in its outer drum.

During the 1906 earthquake, the building sustained only modest damage which was quickly repaired. It was also undamaged during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Nonetheless, the State of California has mandated that unreinforced masonry structures like Temple Sherith Israel must meet stringent seismic resilience standards. In 2005, the congregation commenced a seismic retrofit of the sanctuary, funded through an ambitious capital campaign.[1]

Temple Sherith Israel – Sanctuary Exterior
Southwest corner 
West façade 
Northwest corner 

History and congregational life[edit]

The Gold Rush and Jewish pioneers[edit]

The history of Congregation Sherith Israel is also San Francisco’s history: Gold Rush, fire, earthquake, scandal, war and yet another earthquake. In 1848, the village of Yerba Buena lay poised between Mexican rule and American annexation. Then gold was found 140 miles away at Sutter's Mill. Meanwhile, Jews in Central Europe lived under repressive regimes that constrained employment, forced military conscription and restricted marriage. Understandably, many enterprising young Jews did not see much of a future for themselves in their homelands. Drawn by the lure of wealth, freedom and opportunity, California became their new Promised Land.[2]

The founding of Congregation Sherith Israel[edit]

In September 1849 – months after the discovery of gold but still a year before California achieved statehood – a small band of Jewish pioneers gathered in a wood-frame tent. Although lacking a rabbi and Torah scrolls, they 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.

In April 1851, San Francisco’s frontier Jews met again, this time to establish a permanent congregation and elect officers. In typical fashion they split almost immediately, forming not one but two synagogues: Congregation Sherith Israel followed the minhag Polen, the traditions of Jews from Posen in Prussia, while Congregation Emanu-El chose to worship according to the German practices of Jews from Bavaria. The synagogues have been friendly neighbors ever since.[3]

The birth of a Reform Jewish institution[edit]

As San Francisco boomed, keeping Sherith Israel housed proved a considerable challenge. The congregation’s first temporary meeting place, like much of the city, was destroyed by the "Great Fire" of 1851. After losing its next home to yet another of the conflagrations that routinely swept through the city during those early years, Sherith Israel's members built the temple's first house of worship on Stockton Street between Broadway and Vallejo in 1854 at a cost of $10,000.

So many Jews had departed Europe for San Francisco that, by the end of the 1850s, upwards of six percent of the city’s population was Jewish – a higher percentage (briefly) than in New York. After the Civil War, another generation arrived to seek its fortune in California. In 1870, Congregation Sherith Israel moved to a Gothic-style structure on Post and Taylor Streets, where it remained for 34 years.

Initially Orthodox in the Polish style, Sherith Israel took major steps toward becoming a Reform congregation during this period. In a visible departure from tradition, the Post Street sanctuary was designed for mixed seating. 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 the current site on California Street, Congregation Sherith Israel made these changes official and joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now known as the Union for Reform Judaism.[4]

Congregational leadership[edit]

Under the leadership of many nationally prominent rabbis, Sherith Israel has been a long-standing advocate for social justice in the Jewish community and for the many diverse multicultural communities that call San Francisco home.

Present clergy[edit]

Senior Rabbi Lawrence W. Raphael

Larry Raphael joined Congregation Sherith Israel as its ninth senior rabbi in 2003, following 30 years as a faculty member and dean at Hebrew Union College in New York City.

Prior to his tenure at Sherith Israel, Rabbi Raphael was the first director of the department of Adult Jewish Growth at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (1996–2003). There he created Torah study programs for both individuals and congregations. He also initiated popular study retreats and programs on adult spirituality.

Deeply involved in training the next generation of rabbis, cantors, and Jewish educators throughout much of his career, Rabbi Raphael served as national director of continuing education for the Rabbinic Alumni Association of the Hebrew Union College and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (1993–1996).

During his years in New York, Rabbi Raphael also led annual High Holy Days services for hundreds of young adults and college students. The participatory services, sponsored by the Metropolitan Conference of the National Federation of Temple Brotherhoods and the Hebrew Union College, created a unique community for young people building adult lives in a busy city.

Above all, Rabbi Raphael sees synagogues as transformative places for both individuals and communities. "Synagogues are where we grow Jews," he says. "Synagogues are where we fortify the Jewish spirit, address issues of Jewish literacy, cement the bonds of Jewish peoplehood, enhance the vibrancy of Jewish life, deepen our faith in God and engage in the work of making this a better world."

A native of Los Angeles, Rabbi Raphael graduated from University of California, Santa Cruz (1967), where he founded and became the first president of the UC Santa Cruz Alumni Association. He was ordained at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio (1974) and earned his Ph.D. in leadership and higher education from New York University (1990).

A mystery buff, Rabbi Raphael has edited two volumes of Jewish mystery fiction, Criminal Kabbalah and Mystery Midrash, now in its third printing. He also loves Jewish stories and poetry, both of which he uses frequently during services and talks.[5]

Associate Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller

Julie Saxe-Taller is a Jewish educator who believes deeply in the human responsibility to help repair the world. She joined the clergy at Congregation Sherith Israel in July 2004, shortly after she was ordained at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College.

Rabbi Saxe-Taller is involved in Congregation Sherith Israel’s education programs, working with everyone from preschoolers to adults. Each Friday she brings Shabbat to the preschoolers enrolled in the Sherith Israel–Marin Day School Bright Horizons program, and she facilitates the weekly "Mamas' Group" for parents of young children. In addition, "Rabbi Julie", as she is affectionately known, conducts a monthly parenting class. She also teaches middle and high school programs, as well as classes for adults. With Senior Rabbi Larry Raphael, she co-teaches Congregation Sherith Israel’s "Introduction to Judaism" class and works with conversion students.

Passionate about social justice and building community, Rabbi Saxe-Taller has been instrumental in connecting the synagogue with the San Francisco Organizing Project, enabling Sherith Israel members to build relationships within the community and to collaborate with other congregations on social action projects.

Born in San Francisco, Rabbi Saxe-Taller grew up in Marin County, where her family belongs to Congregation Rodef Sholom. Although she often preferred baseball practice to Hebrew school, she fell in love with Hebrew, which became her gateway to understanding Judaism. She graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1990, earning a bachelor of arts degree in peace and conflict studies, with a minor in Hebrew. She spent one year of college at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and returned to Israel following her degree to study Jewish text at Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.

Singing, celebrating Shabbat and working with others toward social justice highlight what Rabbi Saxe-Taller loves about Judaism. An avid bicyclist, she enjoyed riding over the Brooklyn Bridge to school while she lived in New York, and has participated in the California AIDSRide.[6]

Past clergy[edit]


Henry A. Henry (1857–1863)

Henry A. Henry was Congregation Sherith Israel's first rabbi. Early in his tenure, he took up the cause of Edgardo Mortara, a Jewish boy in Bologna, Italy who had been secretly baptized by his nurse. This incident sparked international outrage among Jews when police, under orders from Pope Pius IX himself, abducted the child and refused to return him to his parents. San Francisco responded in full: more than 3,000 people attended a protest meeting. Rabbi Henry later chaired a group that was formed to draft resolutions which called on the U.S. government to cooperate with European countries in their "endeavors to suppress religious intolerance and persecution".[7]

Jacob Nieto (1893–1930)

Rabbi Jacob Nieto was the leading Bay Area rabbi of his day. Raised in a Sephardic family in Jamaica and a noted speaker, Rabbi Nieto stood at the center of almost every major crisis and cause during his four-decade term of service. He intervened in the Abe Ruef scandal, led relief efforts after the 1906 earthquake and fire, and defended labor organizer Thomas Mooney, wrongly convicted of an anarchist bombing in 1916. He stood up for the disadvantaged, advocated for women’s rights, supported organized labor, opposed the death penalty and objected to World War I as an imperialist venture. A religious reformer, Rabbi Nieto presided over the building of the California Street temple and guided Sherith Israel to prominence among San Francisco congregations.[7]

Jacob J. Weinstein (1930–1932)

Rabbi Jacob Weinstein, an alumnus of Reed College and a Labor Zionist, was so passionate about social issues that the city’s poor and unemployed often flocked to Sherith Israel just to hear his engaging sermons. His views proved too extreme for the congregational community at the time, however, and he was eventually forced to resign after supporting a dockworkers' strike in 1932. He subsequently departed San Francisco for Chicago, where he became one of America’s most respected Reform rabbis. His later career also included a stint as president of Central Conference of American Rabbis.[7]

Morris Goldstein (1932–1972)

Remembered more for scholarship than social activism, Rabbi Morris Goldstein turned his attention inward to the congregation during World War II and the post-war era. Sherith Israel's temple house building – now Newman Hall – was built during his tenure, and he was instrumental in growing membership and programs, which solidified Sherith Israel’s place as a vital part of San Francisco’s Jewish community. While at Sherith Israel, Rabbi Goldstein focused his research endeavors upon the relationship of Jesus to the Judaism of his day, earning a doctorate and publishing the book Jesus in the Jewish Tradition in 1950. Goldstein's work on Jesus and the Sanhedrin continues to be quoted in scholarship on the subject.[7]

Martin Weiner (1972–2003)

Not only did Rabbi Martin Weiner reinvigorate the congregation, attracting many new families and the newly defined cohort of singles to California Street, but he was also known for his quest for social justice and his activism on behalf of civil rights, human rights and Soviet Jewry. He has been engaged with Israel through the years, speaking his mind as the situation in the Middle East has developed. Rabbi Weiner sat on the San Francisco Human Rights Commission for many years, as well as on the boards of many Jewish organizations. During the 1980s under Rabbi Weiner and, in the 1990s with Rabbi Alice Goldfinger, Sherith Israel developed model programs to feed the homeless and the homebound. A leader in the national Reform movement, he mentored many associate rabbis who went on to congregational careers throughout the U.S. He also served as the president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and sat on the editorial committee for the Reform movement’s new prayerbook, Mishkan T'filah.[7][8]


Martin Feldman (1960–2003)

Cantor Emeritus of Congregation Sherith Israel, Martin Feldman was born 1928 into a musical family in Newark, New Jersey and frequently sang in Orthodox synagogue choirs as a young boy. He attended Montclair State Teachers College and received a vocal scholarship from the David Mannes School of Music in New York City. In 1958, he graduated from Hebrew Union College with a degree in sacred music and received a certificate qualifying him to be a religious school administrator. After serving Congregation Beth Abraham in Tarrytown, New York, Cantor Feldman came west in 1960 to become cantor of Congregation Sherith Israel, where he served for 43 years. He is a past president of the Northern California Board of Cantors and has served on the National Board of the American Conference of Cantors. Cantor Feldman received a vocal scholarship from the Opera Department at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 1965, as well as an honorary doctorate in music from Hebrew Union College in 1998. About singing in Sherith Israel’s historic sanctuary, Cantor Feldman says, "To chant in the sanctuary was always a spiritual experience. With the music, the dome and the artwork telling the story of our people, one blends in and becomes part of thousands of years of Jewish tradition."[9]

Rita Glassman (2003–2012)

Cantor Rita Glassman began learning Torah from her parents, Holocaust survivors from Lithuania and Czechoslovakia, who stressed the importance of Jewish education and values, modeling mitzvot and love of Torah. She drew particular inspiration from weekly synagogue visits with her father where she heard famous cantors from his native Vilnius, including Moshe Koussevitzky. During her junior year of college, Cantor Glassman studied abroad at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and Hebrew University of Jerusalem, majoring in musicology and Jewish studies. She received her investiture as a cantor from the Hebrew Union College in New York City in 1985 and later completed the first program for cantors at the Institute of Jewish Spirituality. Before joining Congregation Sherith Israel, she worked for congregations in New York, Pennsylvania and Iowa, as well as Bay Area congregations Beth Sholom in San Francisco and Rodef Sholom in Marin County. Cantor Glassman has also served on the Yad B'Yad Task Force of the World Union for Progressive Judaism with an emphasis on outreach to Jewish communities in Latin America. In addition to her love for chazzanut – the cantorial art – Cantor Glassman composes and records songs both in Hebrew and English in folk, pop and country music styles. Her most recent album, Journey to Shabbat, a collection of contemporary Jewish prayer melodies, was recorded in the temple's historic sanctuary.[10]


  1. ^ "Building biography: An optimistic building for an optimistic age". About us: Historic sanctuary. San Francisco (SF), CA: Congregation Sherith Israel (CSI). Retrieved July 28, 2012. 
  2. ^ "Judaism heads west: Sherith Israel and San Francisco – Woven together like braids of challah". About us: Pioneering since 1851. SF, CA: CSI. Retrieved July 28, 2012. 
  3. ^ "Gold Rush roots: Eureka! Gold discovery leads to our founding". About us: Pioneering since 1851. SF, CA: CSI. Retrieved July 28, 2011. 
  4. ^ "Growth hastens CSI’s move to Reform". About us: Pioneering since 1851. SF, CA: CSI. Retrieved January 21, 2011. 
  5. ^ "Rabbi Lawrence W. Raphael: A national leader in Reform Jewish education". About us: Clergy. SF, CA: CSI. Retrieved July 28, 2012. 
  6. ^ "Rabbi Jule Saxe-Taller: An advocate for families and social justice". About us: Clergy. SF, CA: CSI. Retrieved July 28, 2012. 
  7. ^ a b c d e "Pioneering rabbis champion social justice". About us: Pioneering since 1851. SF, CA: CSI. Retrieved July 28, 2012. 
  8. ^ Eppstein 1998.
  9. ^ "Cantor Martin Feldman: Our beloved "sweet singer of Zion"". About us: Clergy. SF, CA: CSI. Retrieved July 28, 2012. 
  10. ^ Katz 1999.


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