Sherith Israels legacy: its outspoken rabbis

When your synagogue is roaring into its 150th anniversary you're entitled to brag a little.

So here's Rabbi Martin Weiner showing his pride for Congregation Sherith Israel's long tradition of spiritual leaders who haven't been afraid to go against prevailing ways of thinking and stand up for justice from the bimah.

"We've always seemed to have rabbis with very courageous voices, who spoke up for social justice and to affirm that Judaism has something to say about a just society."

And then Weiner quickly added: "Emanu-El's [rabbis] weren't very outspoken."

Perhaps when it's your synagogue's 150th birthday party, you're entitled to take a little shot at your rival, too.

Actually, that's nothing new. Sherith Israel and Emanu-El have been going at it for a century and a half. In fact, the single group of Jews that came together in San Francisco in 1849 split up two years later because of dramatic arguments over customs and traditions.

"One of the main things is they couldn't agree on a shochet, a ritual slaughterer," Weiner explained. "One wanted one man, a German, and the other wanted someone from Poland, I believe. A few days later, we had two synagogues."

The English, Polish and Russian Jews formed Sherith Israel. The German Jews formed Emanu-El.

Fifteen decades later, there is still an argument over which was first.

Deeds, notes from meetings and incorporation papers show that one congregation was born five months ahead of the other, claims Art Rosenberg, the son of former Sherith Israel archivist Adolph Rosenberg.

"Not that I'm prejudiced and not that there needs to be a rivalry, but Sherith Israel was first," Rosenberg said. "My dad did extensive research. He'd go running into Marty's office saying, 'Look! Look, what I just found!"

Temple Sholom of Chicago Rabbi Jay Moses, who also did extensive research on that era in San Francisco for his Hebrew Union College thesis, couldn't back up Rosenberg's claim. But he couldn't deny it, either.

"The closest we can come to the reality of the situation is that they were formed at the same time," Moses said. "If one was formed before the other, it was probably only a matter of hours or days."

What's the truth? The two congregations announced their formation in the second week of April 1851, according to "Architects of Reform," by Fred Rosenbaum, the executive director of Lehrhaus Judaica. Emanu-El prepared a charter on April 8, filing it with the county clerk three days later. Leaders of Sherith Israel also met on April 8, preparing an advertisement for kosher meat that ran two days later.

Weiner said, "You can argue over who had the first meeting and who took out the first incorporation papers, but it's all silly. The people who were at that original Rosh Hashanah service [in 1849] all became the founders of the two synagogues here."

Sherith Israel, which means "remnant of Israel" in Hebrew, began as an Orthodox congregation. But in less than a decade, the congregants grew restless with what they felt was a stodgy, Old World stance.

"There was no such thing as an American synagogue at that point," said Moses, whose great-great-great-grandfather in 1857 became Sherith Israel's second rabbi, Henry Abraham Henry.

The Rev. Henry — some American rabbis were called "reverend" in those days — was irate that the pioneer spirit of his congregants led them to want to leave their roots behind.

"He constantly railed against their lack of traditional observance," said Moses. "But he was careful not to push it past the limit. Every year he had to apply to the board to be considered for rehiring."

While the congregation was "strictly Orthodox," many congregants were not observant. And while Henry's bombasts tried their patience, they stuck by him.

"When he retired in 1869, [and] throughout the next 10 years, they very quickly took their closet Reform stance and made it a public, official declaration of who they were," Moses said.

Henry began a long tradition of Sherith Israel rabbis taking stands not altogether popular with the congregants.

In the 1890s, for example, Rabbi Jacob Nieto spoke out courageously against capital punishment — which many people enthusiastically supported in the still somewhat Wild West.

Nieto began his 38-year stint at Sherith Israel in 1893, when the synagogue was at Post and Taylor streets. Before that, from 1854 to 1870, it was located on Stockton Street.

The first building on Washington Street burned in the great fire of 1851, and the next one on Kearny was claimed by fire a few years later.

The cornerstone for the fifth and current building on California Street at Webster was laid in February 1904. Respected San Francisco architect Albert Pissus designed it with a Sephardic influence.

The grand golden dome, which underwent a $1.1 million renovation in 1987, shoots 180 feet into the air and is a familiar landmark in the Pacific Heights skyline. Some of the seats from the Post and Taylor location were brought over and installed in the balcony — where they remain to this day.

One of Sherith Israel's claims to fame is that its 95-year-old building — though currently in need of an earthquake retrofit that will cost an estimated $6 million — survived the 1906 quake and the ensuing fires, which were halted at Van Ness Avenue.

At the time, few big buildings remained intact, so Sherith Israel's sanctuary, auditorium and school rooms were used as San Francisco's Hall of Justice for two years.

One of the city's most infamous political-corruption trials was held at Sherith Israel. In a sensational trial, political boss Abe Ruef, the well-educated son of Alsatian Jewish immigrants, was convicted for extortion in the wake of the earthquake.

In the early 1930s, Sherith Israel found itself in the spotlight of controversy when Rabbi Jacob J. Weinstein used a Yom Kippur sermon to side with striking dock workers.

Only 29 at the time, Weinstein went on to become one of America's great rabbis, serving as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and drawing national attention by taking bold stances on contemporary issues.

During the fall of 1931, Weinstein fought his first battle. It was the Depression, and there was a huge labor dispute between longshoremen and San Francisco City Hall. Two men accused of planting a bomb were thrown in jail.

According to former Bulletin employee Jeffrey Gale, Weinstein "at the end of his sermon urged all of the congregants to go down and surround City Hall because a great injustice had been done."

Many congregants were aghast, especially those who owned businesses and were anti-labor.

In her book "Rabbi Jacob J. Weinstein: Advocate of the People," Janice Feldstein wrote that over the next few months, Weinstein came under intense pressure and scrutiny for his stand. A national debate among religious leaders raged.

Weinstein eventually succumbed to the national and local storm of controversy, resigning only 22 months after coming to Sherith Israel.

In a letter to the congregation, Weinstein blasted Sherith Israel for refusing to "become a watchtower of the battlefield of social injustice," and snapped, "That challenge is still beyond your grasp."

After Weinstein departed in 1932, Morris Goldstein took over for the next 40 years, leading the congregation through some lean times as congregants fled for the suburbs.

"In the late '50s, it was…an inner-city synagogue that nobody was going to," Rosenberg said. "It wasn't dead on the vine, but it was dwindling."

In 1972, when Weiner became just the fourth Sherith Israel senior rabbi in this century, membership was 650 households. Today, that number is 1,150.

Some of the most famous congregants include California Supreme Court Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, Nobel Prize winners Dr. Stanley Prusiner and Myron Sholes, current Yale University President Richard Levine and Gap CEO Mickey Drexler. Sen. Dianne Feinstein was a member for a while, but she returned to Emanu-El, where she was confirmed, about 10 years ago.

Many of the notable members will be honored during the 14-month 150th anniversary celebration, which will continue through Nov. 11, 2000. It will culminate with a cabaret musical featuring a specially written review by Billy Philadelphia, a local entertainer and Sherith Israel congregant.

Other special events include a tour of the dome on Sunday, Oct. 17, concerts, historical exhibits and lectures.

For all of the history that Sherith Israel has witnessed, it might be the simple memories that mean the most.

Longtime congregant Marilyn Borovoy for example, remembers going to synagogue as a child in the late '20s and early '30s.

"The thing I remember most was going to temple on the High Holidays and how we used to have a row of seats — my mother and her two sisters, her brother, my father and other assorted members of the family all sitting together," said Borovoy, 77. "With the mobility of families these days, you just don't have that anymore. Those were wonderful years."

Thousands upon thousands of memories like those are what form the heart and soul of Sherith Israel — and the daring words of a handful of rabbis.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.