For a time after the two pioneer Jewish Congregations of the West, Congregation Emanu-El and Congregation Sherith Israel of San Francisco, were founded as one synagogue in 1851, both used rented quarters.
In the summer of 1854 both completed their first synagogue buildings.
But it was not until Congregation Emanu-El finished its second temple in 1866, that San Francisco had a truly grand synagogue structure.
Sutter Street Location
Located on the north side of Sutter Street between Powell and Stockton, the property for it was purchased for $15,000 from Benjamin Davidson, who represented the English branch of the Rothschilds.
The cornerstone was laid in 1864.
Addresses delivered by the Congregation’s President Louis Sachs, architect William Patton and Rabbi Elkan Cohn.
When the temple was nearing completion in 1865, one Jewish journalist rhapsodized: “When our gaze is met by the rich and gigantic proportions of this sacred structure, with its commanding towers in their elevated position as spiritual sentinels, it appears to proclaim, ‘Children of Israel, gather within the walls of this temple and worship the Lord.'”
The “Sutter Street Temple,” as it was popularly called, was dedicated on March 23, 1866, with elaborate ceremonies.
The new Synagogue was widely praised as the handsomest religious building in California and one of the most beautiful Synagogues in the world.
Its twin towers rose to 175 feet and were conspicuous features of the San Francisco skyline.
It cost $175,000 to build and seated over 1,300.
One commentator observed that the new structure, “reflects the greatest credit upon the taste and liberality of the Jews of San Francisco, and is a monument all may take just pride in.”
The building withstood the severe earthquakes of 1868 and 1906, but the interior was destroyed by the fire, in the wake of the 1906 quake.
Rebuilt in 1907, it was used until the early 1920s. Its Gothic Byzantine style was the model for many of the subsequent Temples erected in the West.
Lake Street Location
In the late 1920s, Congregation Emanu-El moved to a more “modern” structure on Lake Street.
160+ years since its beginning in a tent, Congregation Emanu-El is still thriving at this location.
More information can be found in the following issues of Western States Jewish History:
- The Sutter Street Temple “Emanu-El” San Francisco, California, Norton Stern, 41/2
Jews in the News
A Farwell Letter to Leon Dyer,
First Acting Rabbi of the West — 1850
San Francisco, September 29, 1850.
L. Dyer, Esq.
As you are about to depart hence in a few days, thereby depriving us of your valuable services as presiding officer of our house of worship, we cannot allow the opportunity to pass to convey to you our heartfelt thanks for the very able manner in which you have conducted the duties imposed upon you. Through your exertions we are happy to say that during religious exercise, order and decorum such as would have been creditable to older and more experienced congregations were fully maintained and at this moment we feel sensibly the loss that your absence from amongst us will cause we who are now struggling to establish a permanent place of worship to the God of Israel but as business calls you to your native State, you will bear with you the testimonial of our high esteem and appreciation as an officer and in your social relations, and our fervant prayers for the continuance of good health and prosperity.
Jacob J. Joseph, Tentative Vice-President
Jacob Rosenbaum, Secretary
Samuel Marx and Philip Runkel,
Trustees of the Kearny Street Hebrew Congregation
Note: The name of Congregation Emanu-El was not yet established at this time as evidenced by the use of the appellation “Kearny Street Hebrew Congregation.” Leon Dyer, who had officiated at the services held in San Francisco on Yom Kippur, 1849, and at the High Holy Days of 1850, was about to return to his home in Baltimore, when this letter was written. The name Emanu-El was adopted at the time of the formal organization of the congregation, in 1851. —WSJH, Vol. 3, #3
The most complete history of the synagogue is: Visions of Reform: Congregation Emanu-El and the Jews of San Francisco by Fred Rosenbaum
Photo Gallery [New photos always welcome]