Jacob Voorsanger, Outstanding Pioneer Rabbi of San Francisco

Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger

Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger WS 26/3762

Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger
WS 26/3762

Values Codes I-H-E-L-P

Jacob Voorsanger was born in Amsterdam in 1852.

Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger left Amsterdam in August of 1972, before he was twenty years old, went to London where he stayed for three months, then came to America, arriving in New York in January 1873.


San Francisco

Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger came to the San Francisco in 1886 from Houston, Texas to assist the venerable Rabbi Elkan Cohn at Congregation Emanu-El.

When Rabbi Cohn died in 1889 Rabbi Voorsanger became the Spiritual Leader of the Congregation, holding that post until he passed away in 1908.

Historical research by Dr. Kenneth C. Zwerin of San Francisco, with the collaboration of  Western States Jewish History, uncovered the surprising information that the revered and re­spected Voorsanger not only had no Rabbinical or­dination, but he had not received any university training.

It had been thought that Voorsanger was ordained a Rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary of Amsterdam, the city where he was born.

Actually, a search in the Municipal Archives of Amsterdam show that Jacob Voorsanger was not ordained, that he had never been a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and that he had not been enrolled at nor received any academic training at an institution of higher learning.

He had attended the high school level Jewish day school in Amsterdam, operated by the Seminary.

Voorsanger’s father, Wolf Voorsanger, was a diamond cutter, and the family were residents of Amsterdam for several generations. There was no Rabbinical Voorsanger family in Germany.

When Jacob Voorsanger took his first Synagogue post in America, it was as the Cantor of Bene Israel Congregation of Philadelphia, where he served from 1873 to 1876. But he began to apply himself to serious study of Jewish subjects, and also took elocution les­sons to fit himself for a future career as an effective pulpit orator.

Form 1876 to 1877, the future Rabbi was engaged as the chasan or Cantor of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. And from 1877 to 1878 he was the Cantor of Congregation of the Sons of Israel and David at Providence, Rhode Island.

In 1878, Voorsanger was engaged by Congregation Beth Israel of Houston, as its Rabbi. It was his first position in that capacity. At the time, few Rabbis serving in American pulpits had been ordained.

Voorsanger, whose self-study had served to prepare him for a successful ministry in Houston, came to San Francisco in 1886 with a fine eight-year record as a spiritual leader in Texas.


 San Francisco

In San Fran­cisco, in spite of his lack of formal preparation at the university level, he became a grand pulpit speaker and effective community leader.

To cover his lack of ordination, Rabbi Isaac M. Wise of the He­brew Union College issued Voorsanger an honorary “Bachelor of Theology” degree in 1895.

In 1903, He­brew Union College awarded him an Hon­orary Doctorate.

Interestingly enough, his contemporaries on Congregation Emanu-El’s board, as well as such friends as Rabbi Emil Hirsch of Chicago and Rabbi Judah L. Magnes all realized that Rabbi Voorsanger had no formal Rabbinic training.

In spite of that, Rabbi  Voorsanger lectured at Stanford, taught at the University of California.

“His Rabbinic accomplishments were so impressive as to mislead most of the historians who failed to check the basic facts.” WMK


Jacob Voorsanger passed away in 1908 – after serving Congregation Emanu-El for 22 years, 19 as their spiritual leader and highly successful representative to the entire San Francisco community.

More information can be found in the following issues of Western States Jewish History:

  • Voorsanger, Rabbi; Jacob Voorsanger: From Cantor to Rabbi; San Francisco; Zwerin, Kenneth C. & Stern, Norton B.; 15/3
  • Voorsanger, Rabbi Jacob; Russian Jewish Immigration and Rabbi Jacob Voosanger; San Francisco; Schweitzer, Jane; 17/2
  • Voorsanger, Rabbi Jacob. Jews on the Pacific Coast, 1849-1860. Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger.; 36/2.
  • Voorsanger, Jacob, Pioneer Jews of San Francisco, Part Two, M-Z, Norton Stern, 41/2


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