Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco

Congregation Emanu-El


Congregation Emanu-El and Congregation Sherith Israel of San Francisco were founded as one synagogue in 1851. However, they soon split, and both used rented quarters.

In the summer of 1854, both completed their first synagogue buildings.

But it was not until 1866, when Congregation Emanu­-El completed its second building, that San Francisco had a truly grand synagogue structure.


Sutter Street

Emanu-El’s first location was built 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, and addresses were 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.'”

Congregation Emanu-El's Second Building WS 14/1985

Congregation Emanu-El’s Second Building, #WS 14/1985

The “Sutter Street Temple,” as it was popularly called, was dedicated on March 23, 1866 with elaborate ceremonies.

The building was widely praised as the handsomest religious structure 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.

The building cost was $175,000 and it 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 1920’s. Its Gothic Byzantine style was the model for many of the subsequent temples erected in the American West.

Temple Emanu-El after the 1906 Earthquake-Fire. WS 22/3193

Temple Emanu-El after the 1906 Earthquake-Fire, #WS22/3193








Congregation Emanu-El's Double Domes in San Francisco Skyline before 1906. Postcard

Congregation Emanu-El, double domes, San Francisco Skyline before 1906, vintage postcard









Lake Street 

In the late 1920’s, Congregation Emanu-El moved to a more “modern” structure on Lake Street.

160+ years since its beginning in a tent, Congregation Emanu-El still thrives at this location.

Postcard of Congregation Emanu-El in the late 1920's

Congregation Emanu-El, late 1920’s, vintage postcard









  • Norton B. Stern, “The Sutter Street Temple “Emanu-El,” San Francisco, California,” Western States Jewish History 41/2.


Jews in the News

A Farewell 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 fervent 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. — WSJHQ 3/3