San Jose temple marks its life, from Abraham Lincoln to Rabin

"Whereas this glorious land of freedom has been deprived of our late esteemed and beloved President, Abraham Lincoln…the members of this Society join our fellow citizens in the procession of the funeral obsequies…"

The Bikur Cholim Society of San Jose passed this resolution in 1865, mourning the recent death of President Lincoln.

Today the society, founded Aug. 5, 1861, is known as Temple Emanu-El, and will soon celebrate its 135th anniversary.

"Everything we do this year has an anniversary theme," says temple historian Jane Schwartz.

A Gershwin concert slated for 7 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 25 will include cantorial soloists Rachel Michelberg from Emanu-El and David Untermann of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills. It will be held at Temple Emanu-El, 1010 University Ave., San Jose. For information, call (408) 292-0939. Another concert is planned for June, Schwartz says.

The celebration culminates with a May 4 gala at the San Jose Fairmont Hotel. The event will honor past and present leaders, says JoAnn Shank, who is co-chairing the evening with fellow temple member Joan Fox.

With a possible reunion in the offing, staff members would also like to locate as many people as possible who were confirmed at the temple.

"Lifestyles change, and people's need for organized religion changes. We're hoping to bring them back," Shank says.

In addition, Schwartz and fellow history buff Dr. Robert Hersch are working to improve the quality of their historical archives: glass cases filled with photographs and memorabilia.

Founded by Santa Clara County pioneers fleeing religious intolerance in Europe, the Bikur Cholim Society has been a major force in the South Bay Jewish community for years.

The society built its first home at Third and San Antonio streets in San Jose, where the sanctuary was dedicated in 1870.

"It was originally liberal Orthodox," Schwartz says of the group's affiliation. Although the society joined the Reform Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1917, its services retain Conservative elements. Schwartz noticed these when she joined the temple in the early 1960s.

"I thought I was in the wrong place. The service was more Orthodox than I was accustomed to," she says, adding that she sees more kippot and tefillin there than in a more traditional Reform synagogue.

Fire destroyed the original sanctuary in 1940, but heroic measures ensured that not all was lost. A city historical marker on the San Jose History Walk today reads in part, "Kurt Opper, a member of the congregation and a refugee from Nazi Germany, saved the Torah from burning."

After World War II ended, the society established a new synagogue at University Avenue and Myrtle Street in 1948, naming it Temple Emanu-El.

Anita Sommer, one of the temple's oldest members, joined the synagogue in the early 1940s.

"I've gone through so many rabbis that it would take a book to talk about each one," said Sommer, who for years wrote the temple's monthly bulletin.

Active in the sisterhood organization, Sommer recalls the members raising funds to cover her trip to a national convention in 1946, where she would represent the temple.

"In those days, you traveled by train," she said. "They held a bridge party and raised the $30."

Rabbi emeritus Joseph Gitin came to Emanu-El in 1950 and served as rabbi until 1976. "When I came, San Jose was very small, about 75,000 people," he said. "They were very active with canned foods. That was the main industry."

Gitin watched the area boom with industrial and technological growth, and temple membership grew from 150 to 1,100 families. He remembers a confirmation class so large that "the only place to meet was in the sanctuary."

Temple Emanu-El was known for its activism on behalf of civil rights and interfaith issues, Gitin recalled.

"We had meetings until the wee hours of the morning," he said. "When the newspaper industry discriminated, we got one of the CEO's to come to the synagogue and tell us why."

Today Emanu-El, at 500 families, is the area's largest Reform temple, according to Rabbi Mark Schiftan, a transplant from San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El, now in his second year with the San Jose synagogue.

Temple members keep up their activist traditions, sheltering homeless during the winter and reaching out to the African-American, Arab, Muslim and other communities, he said.

"It is an urban congregation and needs to be the most embracing, the most tolerant of diversity," he said.

And recently Temple Emanu-El mourned a fallen leader much as it had in 1865: It held the South Bay memorial service for slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.