COVER STORY:On shaky ground

Amid the charred rubble of the Great Quake of 1906, the radiant dome of Congregation Sherith Israel glowed like a beacon of better days to come.

The newly built temple was quickly transformed into the nerve center of the obliterated city. Most spectacularly, the corruption trials for city officials who had turned San Francisco’s coffers into their own private playground (and, notably, refused to upgrade the fire department on the eve of the quake and blaze) were held in Sherith Israel’s breathtaking sanctuary. Rabbi Jacob Nieto famously wrung his hands in the balcony as his congregant, Abe “Boss” Ruef, was pronounced guilty below.

Over the next century, the California Street synagogue (which, contrary to popular belief, is not a landmarked building) has been an anchor of the neighborhood as San Francisco rose from the ashes, was rebuilt and flourished. The congregation even hosted a founding session of the United Nations in 1945.

Yet the proud and illustrious survivor of the ’06 quake has run afoul of current seismic regulations. Come Aug. 15, at the order of the city, the Reform synagogue will lock its doors.

When it reopens is anyone’s guess.

The synagogue has fallen victim to legislation affecting no fewer than 28 other San Francisco houses of worship and an estimated 2,000 buildings, citywide. Simply put, Sherith Israel can be summed up via three of the dirtiest words in local architecture: unreinforced masonry building.

The structure will have to undergo an extensive retrofitting process — which would run $20 million or more, if the congregation can amass that sum — before it can once again serve as a public gathering place.

The unreinforced masonry building legislation, known colloquially throughout the city as the “UMB codes,” was passed in 1993. Sherith Israel applied for an extension in 1996 and again in 2002. Technically, since 1996 Sherith Israel’s main building cannot legally be used for more than 12 hours a week or four hours in any one day while hosting more than 299 people, according to Gary Ho, the supervisor of the city’s UMB program.

In all probability, the congregation will apply for a third extension in the next couple of months. But the city’s drop-dead deadline for UMB buildings is February of next year.

And, despite knowing for more than a decade that huge, invasive repairs were inevitable, it is only now that Sherith Israel is planning to kick off a capital campaign.

“Hindsight is 20/20. Maybe we should have done it when it would have cost $6 million,” admitted Peter Samuels, a past congregational president and the chairman of a newly formed committee to amass funds for the retrofit.

“Clearly there were [other] priorities. I was assured the building would not fall in, there was some basic integrity left in the building. I would imagine there were programming needs, things we needed to do.”

He concedes “there’s a legitimate argument” that the congregation has waited far too long to make this move, but, then again, “my sense is, there’s a legitimate argument why they didn’t do it. And I’m a person who doesn’t like looking back. I’m always looking forward.”

Jonathan Pearlman, a San Francisco architect and former member of the city’s landmarks board, understands how difficult it is to get congregants to open their wallets for retrofitting purposes.

“The thing that’s so frustrating for these [religious and public] organizations is you put money in and you don’t get anything for it,” he said.

“You get a safer building, but no additional space, no classrooms. The money goes into the walls and the ground. It’s not like someone’s going to put his name on concrete foundations.”

And while Samuels and Rabbi Larry Raphael are extremely optimistic and enthusiastic, they’re both facing an arduous fund-raising campaign.

What’s more, at this point, even if the congregation is successful in raising the eight-figure sum, the building will have to be abandoned for a year or, perhaps, two in Samuels’ estimation.

The retrofitting procedure alone would take 15 to 18 months, and in the name of expediency and the financial bottom-line, the building could not be occupied during construction.

Congregants have known of the need for major retrofitting since 1993, just six years after the signature dome underwent a $1.1 million renovation. A letter was recently circulated informing members of Sherith Israel about plans for when the building is no longer usable.

High Holy Day services will be held at a nearby church, pending final approval of the church’s board. Smaller services would be held at Sherith Israel’s Newman Hall, a 1940s-era structure that abuts the main building. Synagogue offices will be moved to nearby office space in the California Pacific Medical Center.

Raphael believes the stark, back-to-the-wall realities of the move could be the jolt that spurs fund-raising.

“Knowing about it and living it are two different things,” he said. “The reality of it will surprise some congregants.”

The fund-raising task, however, promises to be a daunting one. Sherith Israel’s membership currently stands at roughly 650 families, barely more than half what it boasted as recently as 1999. What’s more, many of the congregation’s wealthiest members have left in the past decade, with quite a few relocating to nearby Congregation Emanu-El.

Despite it all, Samuels remains upbeat.

“Well, we’re going to have to work harder. That’s all,” he said.

“There are people who can give a lot of money and people who can give what they’re comfortable with. When people see the 154-year history of this institution, they’ll step up.”

He suggested those interested in donating contact Nancy Drapin, Sherith Israel’s executive director, at (415) 346-1720 or

Yet if, despite Raphael and Samuel’s best efforts, the capital campaign stalls, Sherith Israel’s spectacular building will sit, unused, under lock and key. And sit. And sit.

“A number of houses of worship are standing vacant today,” noted Charles Chase, the executive director of San Francisco Heritage. “So many of these congregations have been feeling the high price of seismically retrofitting their buildings. And for many congregations, dwindling membership poses a problem as well.”

Most notably, St. Bridget’s on the corner of Van Ness and Broadway has stood, unused, for more than a decade, and Sacred Heart Church on Fell and Fillmore has been “mothballed” for more than a year pending a retrofitting that could run more than $8 million.

Raphael is quick to point out that “we are no St. Bridget’s.” For one, the Catholic diocese opted to close, sell and attempt to demolish that building, but the city has been less than enthusiastic about the potential razing of the church.

On the other hand, Catholic churches have an advantage Sherith Israel does not.

“Jewish temples are so different from churches. Each is an individual congregation, as opposed to the Catholic Church, which can pony up money for its church in San Francisco,” said Pearlman, the designing architect behind Emanu-El’s retrofitting and renovation from 1989-91.

“There’s no bigger Jewish organization. And if a congregation is of modest means, then it’s just a tragedy. California has pretty much the strictest earthquake rules in the world, and not for no reason. But, at the same time, this is very sad.”

Amazingly, despite its rich history and longevity, Sherith Israel is not a landmarked building; Samuels noted that he and other past presidents had specifically avoided landmarking the synagogue in fear of the Byzantine, bureaucratic nightmare required for even minor alterations to a historical structure.

This decision is now something of a double-edged sword. Had the synagogue been a landmark, it would have been eligible for some city, state and federal funding.

But, as it is not, should push come to shove, Sherith Israel could sell or, theoretically, raze the property — a virtual impossibility for a landmarked structure.

Samuels and Raphael refuse to consider this option.

“We’re not even entering that realm right now. That building is going to be there, and the congregation will be there and grow. And even if [selling the property] was something that was discussed or has been discussed, it wouldn’t be discussed in the j.,” said Samuels.

“We’re going to try to get this thing done on time. And if not, close to it.”

Rabbi Martin Weiner, the congregation’s spiritual leader for 32 years before his 2003 retirement, hopes that’s the case.

He sees the building as a repository of memories for literally thousands and thousands of Bay Area Jews going back 100 years.

“There are congregants who have memories of sitting in certain seats as children with grandparents and maybe even great-grandparents. From my point of view as a rabbi, it was always amazing to look over the years at where the families were seated and see who was there,” he said.

“There are so many incredible, emotional ties.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a columnist at Mission Local. He is also former editor-at-large at San Francisco Magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.