Sherith Israel turns the clock back 150 years on new year

How many Rosh Hashanah services get interrupted by the mayor of San Francisco?

Or visited by a Yosemite Sam look-alike gold prospector — and Jewish, no less! — from the 1840s?

Or conclude with a rousing sing-a-long of "San Francisco" instead of the traditional "Ein Keiloheinu"?

All three happened Sunday morning at a foggy, outdoor service at the base of the TransAmerica building to kick off Congregation Sherith Israel's 15-month celebration of its 150th anniversary.

"Shanah Tovah to you, and happy anniversary to us," Rabbi Martin Weiner said at the start of the ceremony at San Francisco's Redwood Park, just one block from where a handful of pioneer Jews conducted the city's first High Holy Day service in 1849.

Shortly after Weiner's welcome, the service was interrupted by its first visitor — a stout, bearded sailor named Captain Jefferson who strolled in from the fog and regaled the chilly crowd of about 300 with seafaring tales of voyages here in the 1840s.

He was the first of six "historical guests" who periodically broke into the service. Five others dressed in mid-19th century garb showed up as well, captivating congregants with five-minute monologues, scripted by Weiner, about what it was like to be a Jew in the California Gold Rush days.

"It was not an easy place to raise a Jewish family," said one of them, a parasol-toting character named Cora Marcus, portrayed by Sherith Israel congregant Carolyn Power Perlstein.

The interesting blend of religious tradition, local Jewish history, Old West folklore and mayoral politics — in a small park surrounded by towering trees and skyscrapers — turned the second-day Rosh Hashanah service into a memorable event.

"To be Jewish and to be a San Franciscan — today I feel so proud of being both," said congregant Joan Sutton. "I came here this morning not knowing what to expect, but it was so unique and it felt so appropriate to have it in this setting."

The funniest moment in the service occurred when one of the historical characters, Sam Brannan, was talking about how he and other prominent Jewish San Franciscans helped start a vigilance committee in 1851.

"The elected city officials were tapping the city coffers for cash and spending large sums with no accounting," said actor Dan Wolf — at the precise moment San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown arrived and was stepping up to the bimah.

"The timing of that was purely coincidental," Weiner told the laughing congregants. "We really did not plan on that timing."

Brown waited for Wolf to finish the dramatic presentation and then did his best to play into the laughs, saying he wished the vigilance committee could have tried Frank Jordan and Clint Reilly, his chief opponents in the mayor's race.

On a more serious note, Brown praised the history of Sherith Israel and "the pioneering efforts Jews have made in San Francisco just as they have made in the rest of the world."

He continued, "As is usually the case when I'm exposed to the Jewish community in San Francisco, you're doing it in a very unique fashion, typically San Francisco fashion."

He then proclaimed Sunday as "Congregation Sherith Israel Day in San Francisco."

Sherith Israel's celebration of its 150th anniversary will run through November 2000. Two upcoming events include a Torah commemoration on Simchat Torah, Sunday, Oct. 3, and a tour of the synagogue's 95-year-old sanctuary on Sunday, Oct. 17. In the coming months, there will also be concerts, programs, historical exhibits and lectures.

Sherith Israel's beginnings date back to April 1849, when approximately 100 Jewish pioneers gathered for San Francisco's first Passover seder at the Hotel Albion.

Several months later, Jews got together again to celebrate the High Holy Days and gathered for a Yom Kippur service in rented rooms near the intersection of Montgomery and Washington streets. Today, that spot is marked with a commemorative plaque.

Two years after that historic service, the group split into two Reform synagogues, Sherith Israel and Congregation Emanu-El, which also has planned an elaborate 150th anniversary celebration for this year.

As one of the historical characters, Samuel Cohen, played by Nathan Phillips, noted: "We wanted to form one synagogue for all the Jews in the community. Wouldn't have that been nice…But you know how Jews are! We became deadlocked."

The Jews from Germany founded Emanu-El. The Jews from England, Russia and Poland formed Sherith Israel.

Sherith Israel had several sites before moving to its current location in 1904, at California and Webster in Pacific Heights. The synagogue building, featuring the distinctive grand dome, has undergone numerous improvements in the past 95 years, but one of its biggest claims to fame is surviving the 1906 earthquake.

The only rumbling Sunday, however, was the sound of trucks barreling down Sansome Street and occasionally disrupting the proceedings.

Otherwise, the service was traditional but abbreviated, although a Torah wasn't used.

"We don't have a Torah because in 1849 they didn't have a Torah either," Weiner told the congregation. "They read from a book."

And before Suzanne Chaslow blew the shofar, Weiner said, "Now we're going to do something that would have scandalized our ancestors in 1849. You'd better believe a woman would not have sounded the shofar in 1849."

Sunday's commemorative service was organized by Lee Ann Steiner and Rhoda Wolfe, who planned the event for nearly four months.

Congregants were delighted. "It was fantastic, wonderful," said Fred Nervo of San Francisco. "It really tied you to 150 years ago. You could really feel the way they [Jewish pioneers] felt."

Nervo said he particularly enjoyed congregant Patty Wolfe, dressed like a classy saloon girl, leading the congregation in "San Francisco, Open Your Golden Gate" to close the ceremony.

"As a way to kick off our 150th anniversary, we couldn't have asked for anything better," said Paul Steiner, president of the board of trustees.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr is J.'s former managing editor and former Hardly Strictly Bagels food columnist. He lives and writes in Mexico.