Values Codes I-H-E-L
Not every Jewish person who came to pioneer California remained in the state. Most of those who returned to the East or Europe left little behind to mark their years in the Golden West. An interesting exception was Siegmund Bergel. His leadership in the community where he lived for the four years he spent in California was so fruitful and effective, that one could easily predict he would make his mark anywhere, which is exactly what happened. –Norton B. Stern
Siegmund Bergel was born in Prussian-occupied Poland in 1844.
At the age of 22 in 1866, Bergel came to America and established a private Jewish day school in Savannah, Georgia.
Two years later he came to San Francisco, apparently realizing there were better opportunities to be found in California.
During the same period the Jewish leaders of the Jewish community of San Bernardino in Southern California became so disgusted with the miserable quality of public school education in their locale, that they decided to establish their own Jewish day school.
At that time, San Bernardino Jewry constituted a strong community with fine leadership.
One of the men, Jacob Rich, had served as President of Sherith Israel of San Francisco in the 1850’s, prior to relocating to Southern California.
Another, Mark I. Jacobs, later became Vice President of Ohabai Shalome of San Francisco.
A delegation of San Bernardino Jews made a trip to San Francisco, late in April, 1868 to find a teacher for what was soon to be the San Bernardino Hebrew and English Academy.
They engaged 24-year-old Siegmund Bergel, who accepted and promptly set up and operated the first Jewish day school in Southern California.
The opening ceremonies of the school were held a month later, in connection with Shavout, the festival which celebrates the giving of the Torah. The school met in quarters which formerly housed a church.
From the very beginning, the San Bernardino Hebrew and English Academy was a grand success.
That Fall, a public examination of the pupils was held, and the gentile editor of a local paper was deeply impressed with the youngster’s recitations.
Sigmund Bergel also conducted High Holy Day services for the Jewish Community in rented locations.
He continued to lead in Jewish religious observances for the next four years.
Each year the theatrical performances in celebration on Purim attracted all of the Jewish community and were such a success that halls were rented, and the gentile community invited for a modest admission fee.
The public examinations continued to impress and even amaze local reporters who lavished praise on the students, their teacher and the school.
Siegmund Bergel became an American citizen in 1871.
Siegmund Bergel became active in the leadership of turnverein, joined the Masonic Lodge, became involved with raising funds for the war relief (Franco-Prussian War), and he became a member and officer of the Odd Fellows.
The San Bernardino Literary Society was founded in 1870, and Bergel was elected President.
He was a conspicuous and effective leader in many aspects of San Bernardino civic and Jewish life.
His work had altered the state of public education in the area simply by example.
In April, 1872, Siegmund Bergel announced he was leaving town for a visit to Europe. He never returned to California.
In Berlin, Bergel became a top Jewish communal leader.
Siegmund Bergel died in Europe in 1921.
It was noted in his obituaries that he was the most prominent B’nai B’rith leader in Europe.
He was called the “Grand Organizer,” for he formed B’nai B’rith lodges in the Balkan states, Turkey, Asia Minor, Copenhagen and Basel.
In all his obituary accounts, it was observed that forty years before Siegmund Bergel had enjoyed a career as an educator at San Bernardino in Southern California!
More information can be found in the following issues of Western States Jewish History:
- Bergel, Siegmund; Educator and “Grand Organizer”; San Bernadino; 1844-1921; Norton Stern; 41/4