Jacob Voorsanger: Outstanding Pioneer Rabbi of San Francisco

Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger

Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger WS 26/3762

Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger, #WS26/3762

Values Codes I – H – E – L – P


Jacob Voorsanger was born in Amsterdam in 1852.

He left Amsterdam in August of 1872, before he was twenty years old, and stayed in London for three months.

He then came to America, arriving in New York in January 1873.


Along the Way

It is thought that Voorsanger was ordained as a rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary of Amsterdam, the city where he was born.

However, historical research by Dr. Kenneth C. Zwerin of San Francisco, with the collaboration of Western States Jewish History, uncovered Voorsanger did not have rabbinical or­dination or any university training.

A search of the Municipal Archives of Amsterdam revealed that Voorsanger merely attended a high school level Jewish day school operated by the Amsterdam seminary.

Voorsanger’s father, Wolf Voorsanger, was a diamond cutter, and the family resided in Amsterdam for several generations. Contrary to some reports, there was no rabbinical Voorsanger family in Germany.

Jacob Voorsanger’s first synagogue post in America was as the cantor of Bene Israel Congregation of Philadelphia, where he served from 1873 to 1876. During that time, 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 cantor of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C.

From 1877 to 1878, he was the cantor of Congregation of the Sons of Israel and David in 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 ordained rabbis were serving American synagogues.

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 1866, Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger came to the San Francisco 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.

Despite his lack of formal preparation at the university level, Voorsanger was a grand pulpit speaker and effective community leader.

Rabbi Isaac M. Wise of the He­brew Union College in Cincinnati issued Voorsanger an honorary bachelor of theology degree in 1895, and in 1903 He­brew Union College awarded him an hon­orary doctorate.

Rabbi  Voorsanger’s lack of formal training did not prevent him from lecturing at Stanford and taught at the University of California.


Jacob Voorsanger passed away in 1908.

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

– William M. Kramer


  • Kenneth C. Zwerin and Nortob N. Stern, “Jacob Voorsanger: From Cantor to Rabbi,” Western States Jewish Historical Quarterly 15/3.
  • Jane Schweitzer, “Russian Jewish Immigration and Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger,” Western States Jewish History 17/2.
  • Jacob Voorsanger, “Jews on the Pacific Coast, 1849-1860,” Western States Jewish History 36/2.
  • Norton B. Stern, “Jacob Voorsanger,” Western States Jewish History 41/2.