Brightening things up: In honor of their 40th anniversary, S.F. couple helps restore Emanu-El mosaic

Sharonjean and Richard Leeds knew they wanted to do something meaningful for their synagogue in honor of their upcoming 40th wedding anniversary.

Little did they know it would involve hundreds, probably even thousands, of tiny tiles.

Richard and Sharonjean Leeds (left)

“We wanted to see if there was something identifiable we could do,” said Richard Leeds, a San Francisco dentist, who married Sharonjean in 1970, “as opposed to a contribution to the general fund.”

So the longtime members of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco decided to underwrite a project to restore the temple’s courtyard mosaic tiles.

“People don’t often think about the facility of the synagogue,” said Sharonjean, a professor of dance at the University of San Francisco, “[but it] has to be maintained and beautified.”

After consulting with the temple’s executive director, Joe Elbaum, and his development staff, the longtime San Francisco couple decided on the mosaic project.

But there’s a bit more to the story than that. The project resonated with the Leeds for another reason: their first dog, Reuben.

The Leeds’ first dog, Reuben, checks out his namesake mosaic some 30 years ago, well before it was restored.

The tiles, which were placed in the synagogue courtyard shortly after the temple opened in 1926, feature the Twelve Tribes of Israel. So part of the artwork is of the tribe of Reuben, the son of the Biblical patriarch Jacob.

“Because our first dog was named Reuben,” Richard said, “we’ve always had an affinity for that tribe.”

The synagogue newspaper perhaps embellished the story a bit, stating that it was Reuben who brought the mosaic’s state of disrepair to the attention of the longtime San Francisco residents. The paper also ran a picture of the Leeds’ cute, little Maltese next to the Reuben mosaic.

However, Richard and Sharonjean said that while the Reuben connection was an added bonus, what they really wanted to do was leave the synagogue a legacy in honor of their 40th anniversary, which is later this year.

“We joined the temple in the early ’80s,” Richard said. “We wanted to do something meaningful to us.”

The original mosaic was completed over a three-year period in the mid-1920s, and finished a year after the synagogue was dedicated in April 1926.

The restored mosaic at Congregation Emanu-El features the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

In recent years, some of the tiles had become cracked and faded. Part of the problem, said Judi Leff, Emanu-El’s director of operations, was that the green tiles were disintegrating because they were more susceptible to a type of decay-causing mold.

After the Leeds stepped forward, the synagogue hired ExactMosaics of San Francisco to hone the marble and brighten the colors of the tiles. In addition, workers removed the broken green tiles and then cut, installed and finished new ones.

The ExactMosaics team completed the project in time for the High Holy Days last fall. More than a few service-goers remarked how beautiful the “new” tiles were, said Leff — some acted as if they were seeing the mosaics for the first time, never having noticed them until they were bright and bold.

When Richard saw the new mosaic for the first time, “I said, ‘Oh my gosh.’ The mosaic was so bright and the colors were so saturated. Most people thought it was brand new.”

Richard and Sharonjean are active at Emanu-El, which is another reason why the project was so important to them. Richard is an unofficial photographer for the synagogue, and his photos are featured on a series of Emanu-El postcards and some are in books about the synagogue. He and Sharonjean also belong to a synagogue chavurah and take Jewish yoga at the temple on Thursdays.

“The project struck a chord in us from the beginning,” Richard said.

Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a freelance writer.