San Francisco, California
Like many other immigrant groups to the West Coast, the first Jews to arrive in California came as part of the Gold Rush in 1849. Between 1849 and 1852, early Jewish congregations were established throughout Northern California. Most of the oldest congregations are still in existence, and they boast some of the most historic and beautiful synagogues in California. Among the best known and most visited are Congregation Emanu-El and Congregation Shearith Israel, both in San Francisco; and Congregation B’Nai Israel in Sacramento.
Among the oldest Jewish congregations in California, there is some disagreement as to who arrived and organized first. However, it is documented that the first groups of Jews began arriving in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1849, along with hundreds of thousands of other new immigrants in search of making their fortunes during the famous California Gold Rush. According to one tradition, the Jewish high holy days were celebrated in Sacaramento in 1849, the first time west of the Mississippi River.
It is uncertain exactly where the first congregation was formally established in California, but prevailing sources indicate that it was Congregation Israel in Stockton. By 1852, there were Jewish congregations in Stockton, Sacramento and San Francisco. At least four synagogues were constructed in Northern California by the mid-1850s.
One of the more interesting stories of this early period emerged in San Francisco. In 1850 several dozen Jews arrived in San Francisco intent on forming a new congregation. However, this group, as small as it was, could not come to an agreement on the rites the new synagogue would use. In the end, two congregations were established: the German-rite Congregation Emanu-El, and the Polish-rite Congregation Shearith Israel.
The early congregations of these cities eventually spawned new congregations throughout California, and have earned distinction for the role they have played in spreading the Jewish faith. They have also left a legacy of beautiful synagogues throughout the northern part of the state, including some more than a century old and are still in use.
The synagogue of Congregation Shearith Israel is the oldest purpose-built synagogue still in use in San Francisco. Completed in 1905, this building was constructed in a mixed Byzantine-Romanesque style crowned by a magnificent dome. It survived both the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes relatively intact, though the current building has been renovated and retrofitted to accommodate stronger seismic activity. The historic sanctuary is one of the most beautiful in the United States and is famous for its stained glass and stunningly painted ceiling.
The synagogue of Congregation Emanu-El is a slightly larger, arguably even more impressive building than Shearith Israel. The decades-old friendly rivalry between these two congregations and the subsequent game of one-upsmanship resulted in the completion of another domed, Byzantine-revival masterpiece two decades later.
Congregation Shearith Israel is located in the heart of San Francisco, approximately one mile west of the city center. Congregation EmanuEl is two miles further west of that, just south of the Presidio. As of this writing no visitor information was available for either site. Web: www.sherithisrael.org (official website of Congregation Shearith Israel); www.emanuelsf.org (official website of Congregation Emanu-El).
Sacramento is home to several synagogues of the Congregation B’nai Israel, including the current building and the former site. The latter is marked by a historic plaque. Temple Israel in Stockton is now an apartment building. In addition to the historic synagogues, Northern California is home to the B’Nai Yisrael Synagogue in Daly City, the only synagogue in the United States with a Karaite Jewish congregation. The oldest synagogue on the West Coast is actually located in San Diego. Temple Beth Israel, which dates from 1889, was relocated to San Diego’s historic Heritage Park.