Dome, sweet dome: Saving a Jewish and local landmark

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake couldn’t take down the majestic dome of Congregation Sherith Israel. But the threat of the next Big One almost did.

Thankfully, the venerable Reform synagogue has managed to raise enough money to begin a $12 million seismic retrofit. With work on phase one of the project starting next week, the Bay Area Jewish community has reason to celebrate.

Built in 1905, the California Street synagogue, with its golden dome, glorious stained glass windows and frescoes, has served countless Jewish worshippers over the last century.

As our story on page 3 explains, only a few years ago Sherith Israel’s ability to afford this massive renovation was in doubt. The physical structure had failed to meet city code for unreinforced masonry, and by 2005 it was feared that the retrofit would be unaffordable for the San Francisco synagogue.

That’s when the congregation went to work. Guided by determined clergy and lay leaders — in particular, Rabbi Larry Raphael and Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller, board president Lynn Sedway, and executive director Nancy Drapin — a significant amount of the total dollars needed was raised.

At the same time, structural engineers faced a major challenge: how to reinforce the sanctuary’s core without blemishing the interior or closing down the synagogue.

But they had the will and they found the way.

Though seismic retrofitting seems like a no-brainer, in some ways this project was a tough sell. Because all the work would go into hidden improvements, there would be no visible change: no naming opportunities, no glittering unveiling for major donors.

But this project is about more than keeping the facility safe in the event of a temblor. This project is about preserving the Bay Area Jewish community’s precious heritage, and leaving a lasting legacy to future generations.

And it’s about the ongoing vitality of a congregation, established in 1851, that went on to become one of the largest Reform congregations in the West, and that has served as a focal point of Bay Area Jewish history for generations.

In the millennia-long saga of the Jewish people, 160 years is a blink of an eye. But 160 years encompasses the entire history of Bay Area Jewry. And while our spirit never crumbles, our edifices inevitably do.

Maintenance never comes cheap, especially in quake-prone California. So the millions must be spent.

We salute the congregants, clergy and lay leaders of Sherith Israel for this milestone in preservation. Their vision and generosity will keep this landmark institution strong for another hundred years.

Related: Sherith Israel to begin long-awaited seismic retrofit