Bnai Emunah, once a place for Holocaust refugees, marks 65 years in San Francisco

Mike Knobloch recalls when members of Congregation B’nai Emunah greeted each other with “Guten abend und wie geht es Ihnen?” (Good day and how goes it?)

On the bimah and in the social hall, German was once the main language spoken at the Conservative congregation in San Francisco’s Sunset District.

 

Rabbi George Kantorowski (second from right) at a bar mitzvah in 1959. Kantorowski’s daughter, Eva Angress, is a current member of the synagogue. photos/courtesy congregation b’nai emunah

Now, as it marks its 65th anniversary, B’nai Emunah offers a wealth of contemporary options to its 99-household congregation, from a blues Shabbat service to a technology havurah. Members also look back on a time when most congregants — Knobloch among them — were refugees from Nazi Germany, including a contingent that fled to Japanese-occupied Shanghai.

 

The 65th anniversary celebration kicked off in December with a community Shabbat, followed by a weekend of festivities, including a gala dinner. The guests of honor: the handful of members remaining from B’nai Emunah’s first days.

“Sixty-five years is significant,” said Mark Melamut, the synagogue’s rabbi since 2008. “This community has a long history, from Germany to Shanghai to San Francisco. That story is part of the ongoing legacy.”

“All [B’nai Emunah] members were former refugees from Europe,” said Knobloch, 90, a founder who now lives in Martinez. “We had over 200 family members at the beginning. The services were the same as in Europe. All was identical. It was wonderful.”

Some old-timers remember Dec. 16, 1949, the date inaugural services were held at Golden Gate Commandery Hall on Sutter Street. Among those gathered were 23 Jewish refugees who had come to San Francisco from China, including the founding rabbi, George Kantorowski.

 

Rabbi Ted Alexander’s daughter, Leslie Alexander, became a Reform rabbi in 1983.

Some 20,000 Holocaust-era European Jews fled to Shanghai, the only port city where visas were not required.

 There they rode out the war. 
Despite poor conditions, the Jews of Shanghai developed a community, with nightclubs, newspapers and businesses.

 

“In the beginning, Shanghai seemed like a fun place,” recalled Knobloch, who was 11 when his family fled in 1939, mere weeks before Hitler sealed the German border. “The food was good; my dad had a restaurant. But things got worse because there was no easy income. We were not capable of staying healthy with all the tropical diseases: typhoid fever, cholera. My dad almost passed away.”

Not all founding members went through Shanghai. Some survived the Holocaust through other means.

Henry Haertel, 90, remembers the night in November 1938 — Kristallnacht — when the synagogues were destroyed in his native Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland). Because his father was not born Jewish, Haertel and his brothers worked as forced laborers but avoided deportation to death camps.

After the war, the family reunited, lived in France and Panama for a while, and eventually came to San Francisco. Haertel and his twin brother, Louis, were 24 when they first saw the Golden Gate in 1948.

Though their English was limited, the two found work. They also found B’nai Emunah, back when monthly dues were $1. Louis became temple secretary and both brothers joined the board, with Henry serving from 1954 to 1996. He also served as gabbai (usher) for decades.

 

Members of the women’s club in 1976

“We were always doing things,” Haertel says. “I was always helping to set things up. Any organization needs a lot of volunteers, and we were always involved in helping.”

 

The synagogue moved around for several years, holding High Holy Day services in the Druids Temple and the Scottish Rite Auditorium before finding a permanent home in 1975 on Taraval Street, two blocks from Ocean Beach.

Kantorowski retired in 1968 and German-born Rabbi Ted Alexander took over. He had been serving a small congregation in the East Bay (later to become B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek) and was glad to join his fellow Shanghailanders.

One of his first mandates: English only. German-language sermons became a thing of the past.

The now-retired rabbi wrote that the shul “has survived because of the lessons learned by our founders. New generations that had no physical or emotional ties to [Shanghai] have joined us … because they are attracted by these sentiments: no difference between Jews. No politics. Just one big family, a true mishpacha in which everyone feels at home, feels wanted, feels needed.”

Not all of B’nai Emunah’s German origins have vanished. Cantor Linda Semi, who arrived in 1991, still includes pieces by the 19th-century German Jewish composers Louis Lewandowski and Salomon Sulzer.

This is the same music that founding members heard growing up in prewar Germany, Austria or Poland.

 

In 1980, Rabbi Ted Alexander and Herta Glas

Semi said those composers “had a lot to do with the change from cantorial music being passed down in the oral tradition to having written musical notation and scores with full parts and organ accompaniment thoroughly annotated.”

 

The cantor notes Shabbat morning Torah services today include Sulzer’s melodies for “Ein Kamocha” and “Ki Mitzion.”

“Flipping through our choir book, it is easy to see that Lewandowski was the composer of the bigger choral pieces,” she added, “what has become known as the ‘Great Hallelujah’ and is sung by choirs throughout the world, as well as by our own group.”

Haertel remembers that as late as a few years ago, occasionally older members would ask to hear passages from the German prayerbooks, long since retired.

That was then.

“You go with the flow,” Haertel said. “Things change. We have several younger people on the board, and they take over things, which the young generation must do.”

Yet the legacy of the founders is still reinforced among younger members. Two years ago, Knobloch and other founders spoke from the B’nai Emunah bimah, once more recounting their stories of survival.

Knobloch spoke of an idyllic German childhood turned upside down seemingly overnight, of synagogues on fire, shop windows broken, Jews beaten on the streets in broad daylight.

He also told of the day in 1975 in San Francisco when he and others walked the Torah scrolls from B’nai Emunah’s older temporary headquarters to its current home.

“It was an unbelievable feeling of success to say we beat this bastard in Germany,” Knobloch said. “We’re still alive, and so is Judaism, and we thank God for that. It’s unbelievable how happy we were to have a synagogue, to have a place.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.