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Jewish Community

Part 1 (1850-1900)
Entry Author: Stephen Mark Dobbs

Jews were among the earliest settlers who arrived in San Francisco in the early 19th century. The European presence was first established by Spain in the late 18th century, with the dedication of a Franciscan Mission and a Presidio (garrison) in 1776, even as the new American republic was given birth in Philadelphia.

The Spanish missionaries exploited the native-American population, mostly Ohlone and Costanoan Indians, who all but vanished by the middle of the next century. Until the Gold Rush, the sleepy outpost was only occasionally visited by ships, including the Alert with Richard Henry Dana aboard. The merchants and ship suppliers who outfitted whaling vessels which anchored in the quiet deepwater shoreline cove called the town Yerba Buena, after a "good herb" found along the shoreline.

Spain lost her New World colonies, including Mexico, in the 1820s. The political vacuum created in "Alta California" led to mercantile opportunities for the hardy, and among the settlers around the Yerba Buena cove were men with names such as Jacobs, Meyers, Fischer, and Adler. But there is no evidence of an organized Jewish community at this stage, prior to the 1850s.

In fact, the entire population of the town prior to the Gold Rush numbered in the hundreds. The United States, which had tried unsuccessfully to purchase Mexico's territories above the Rio Grande, went to war in 1846. On July 9, Captain Montgomery, of the naval ship Portsmouth, raised the American flag in Yerba Buena and its few hundred citizens found themselves bloodlessly converted from citizens of Mexico to the United States.

The transition from "Yerba Buena" to "San Francisco" occurred in January 1847, when Washington Bartlett, the first U.S. district commissioner, changed the name of the town. This honored St. Francis of Assisi, patron of the Franciscans who had established the Mission 70 years earlier. An historical curiosity is that a man by the same name would a few decades later become San Francisco's first Jewish Mayor (not Adolph Sutro or Dianne Feinstein). The second Washington Bartlett was descended from a prominent Sephardic (of Spanish or North African origins) family, the Henriquez of Charleston, South Carolina. He was elected in 1882 and re-elected in 1884, then in 1886 he became California's first and only Jewish governor. Bartlett died in office in 1887, the first California governor to acquire that distinction.

1850 - 1900

A year later, in 1848, gold was discovered by John Marshall at Sutter's Fort on the American River in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. By 1852, about 250,000 people poured into San Francisco en route to the goldfields. It was an international event which historian Hubert Howe Bancroft described as "a medley of races and nationalities, including the ubiquitous Hebrews." Making it to San Francisco was no picnic. The Overland Trail was long and dangerous, or one could take the equally fearsome sea voyage from the east coast around the horn of South America, a journey of some 18,000 miles. A third option involved sailing on two oceans and a perilous crossing of malarial straits at the Isthmus of Panama.

Why did the Jews come? Epochal events such as the French Revolution had raised Jewish hopes throughout Europe for relief from 1000 years of oppression. But in such places as Bavaria, where Jews expected legal equality, economic decline and political unrest caused German reactionaries to crush Jewish hopes, and re-impose medieval restrictions. Some 200,000 Jews emigrated from Germany during the decades of the mid-century. Other Jews came from the east coast, having migrated earlier to America. Jews came to San Francisco for a better life, for freedom to practice their religion as they wished, for a fresh start and worldly success on a level playing field.

The early Jewish presence in Gold Rush San Francisco is acknowledged on a bronze plaque on the 700 block of Montgomery Street, which at that time was the shoreline of the Bay. It commemorates the first celebration of Rosh Hashanah in San Francisco near that site in a wood-framed tent, the first such observance on the west coast, on September 26, 1849 (5610).

The thirty or so Jews at Rosh Hashanah (fifty by Yom Kippur) were of diverse backgrounds, including Joseph Shannon, an American-born Jew who would become the first treasurer of the county of San Francisco; Benjamin Davidson, an Englishman and a Rothschild agent; Barnett Keesing, whose wife was the only woman known to have attended the services; and Lewis Franklin of Poland, in whose store the community first worshipped together.

The Montgomery Street site is both symbolic and telling: both the Jewish community and the non-Jewish community started at the same place, along the water's edge. This recalls the historic importance of the sea in the Diaspora, as well as in the most ancient of Jewish stories of the Exodus. A "Magen David" (Jewish star) in the grillwork of the fire escape on the 1911 neoclassical Old TransAmerica building, to which the plaque is affixed, is also a fitting metaphor for escaping from the Old World.

California offered hope and redemption. Jews were certainly among those who were willing to brave the frontier in return for the opportunities of the frontier, which made the adventure so attractive. The rumor about the gold country was that nuggets as big as a fist were lying on the surface waiting to be "mined." The reality was otherwise.

Jewish Commercial Success

The Gold Rush did bring prosperity to some, but the difficulties and dangers of the gold fields frustrated most others who returned home after an unsuccessful search for the yellow metal. Jewish "49ers" realized they might do better by selling to the miners the equipment and supplies they needed, instead of facing the uncertainties of the mines.

Perhaps the most famous Jewish immigrant of this period was Levi Strauss, world-
renowned for his sturdy workpants made out of heavy denim (a French material for tents), reinforced with rivets, would become an international icon, and his company the world's largest maker of apparel including jeans. Other men also saw great opportunity and put down roots in Gold Rush days, or soon thereafter in early San Francisco. Pioneer families included Bissinger, Brandenstein, Dinkelspiel, Fleishhacker, Gerstle, Greenebaum, Haas, Helbing, Hellman, Kohl, Koshland, Levison, Levy, Liebes, Lilienthal, Magnin, Meyer, Schwabacher, Seligman, Sloss, Stern, Sutro, Weill, and Zellerbach.

Jews prospered in the boisterous commercial climate of the mid-19th century in boomtown San Francisco, and by 1853 there were about 3,000 Jews in the area. The City was wide-open, which offered many possibilities. A citizen's standing was based primarily upon performance rather than pedigree, and Jews quickly became part of the meritocracy. But while Jews were freely accepted and there was little anti-Semitism, the fruits of Social Darwinism in San Francisco were not available to everyone, as those acting with prejudice sought continuously to exclude Chinese, Mexicans, and other nationalities.

Since virtually everyone was a newcomer, some of those who eventually emerged as part of the aristocracy had more humble origins. For example, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, and Collis Huntington, the "Big Four" railroad tycoons who built the Transcontinental Railroad, embodied the Gilded Age. Yet they were all self-made men who started out as merchants. Stanford would later invite the Jewish businessman, Louis Sloss, to sit on the board of his new university in Palo Alto.

It became clear early on that once the gold fields were exhausted, the economy would need to run on other commerce. Virtually everything had to be shipped to San Francisco. The more aggressive among the business types would charter boats and go out to meet ships coming in to harbor, and buy up their merchandise before reaching the docks. By the later 19th century many businesses were established or led by Jews which became closely identified with San Francisco, including the Alaska Commercial Co., Anglo-America Bank, City of Paris, Crown Zellerbach, Fireman's Fund, Gump's, Liebes, Magnin's, MJB Coffee, Ransohoffs, Roos Brothers, S & W Foods, Sommer & Kaufman, Sutro & Co, Wells Fargo Bank, and The White House.

Jewish Institutions are Established

Wherever there are Jewish populations, there are synagogues where the community (kehilah) comes together for spiritual and social purpose. The first houses of worship were chartered in the spring of 1850. The Jews from Germany and Central Europe formed Congregation Emanu-El ("God is with Us"), and the Jews from Prussian Poland and Eastern Europe established Congregation Sherith Israel ("loyal remnant of Israel"). The schism in geographic origin and culture was also demonstrated by the formation of two separate charitable associations, the Eureka Benevolent Society for the Germans, and the Hebrew Benevolent Society for the Poles and others. These furnished schools, orphanages, and cemeteries, including a chevra kidisha (burial society).

Temple Emanu-El before the fire of April 18th, 1906.
The Online Archive of California

While the division between the German Jews and virtually everyone else remained, there was cooperation in taking care of the needy and indigent within the Jewish community, especially the newcomers that periodically augmented the growing Jewish population of San Francisco. Social and cultural developments also indicated evolution of the Jewish community. In 1853, the San Francisco Verein (German for "club") was formed, including among its charter members many Jewish businessmen who socialized with the Gentile upper-class and contributed to their community projects. For example, the German Benevolent Society built a German Hospital by enlisting Jewish community assistance. This became the Franklin Hospital which was later renamed the Ralph K. Davies Medical Center.

The community also decided to establish a Jewish hospital, especially as fresh waves of immigration brought Eastern European Jews fleeing pogroms and persecution in Czarist Russia. Mount Zion Hospital was chartered in 1887, "for the purpose of aiding the indigent sick without regard to race or creed, to be supported by the Jewish community." Soon a Jewish men's club, the Concordia, a descendant of the Verein, would also be founded.

Jews in Politics in the 19th century

Developing social relations with the non-Jewish community was promoted by Jews engaging in political life. California was admitted to the Union in September 1850, and two Jews, Elkan and Isaac Cardozo, were members of the first state legislature. In the early 1850s, both Henry Lyons and Solomon Heydenfeldt were appointed to the California Supreme Court.

The second Jewish mayor of San Francisco was Adolph Sutro, who served a brief two year term in the mid-1890s. Sutro was a mining engineer who had become fabulously wealthy by building a tunnel through the mountains (the "Comstock") to drain off the water which filled the silver mines. Sutro moved to San Francisco in 1879 and became the city's largest landowner, purchasing much of the western region of the city which was primarily sand dunes. At one time he owned about 1/12 of all the land in San Francisco.

Adolph Sutro photographed by I. W. Taber, 1886
The Online Archive of California

Sutro was also San Francisco's first major philanthropist. He sponsored the planting of more than a million trees within the 49 square mile municipal limits, and built gardens for public pleasure, including around his own home. The Sutro Baths, based on his knowledge of water hydraulics, was carved out of the cliff side at Lands End, at the northwest corner of San Francisco near the historic Cliff House, which Sutro also owned. He was a major collector of Hebraica which survives today in the Sutro Library at San Francisco State University.

Jewish Contributions to Cultural Development

The cultural development of San Francisco had been virtually assured since the days of the Gold Rush. Those who came to California often had cosmopolitan tastes, and a voracious appetite for books, literary journals, lectures, newspapers, art galleries, and theatrical and musical performances. Nevertheless, the number of bookstores, art galleries, and opera companies paled beside the number of saloons and gambling houses.

The most important visual artist to come out of pioneer San Francisco was Toby Rosenthal, son of a Prussian-Polish tailor who worked near Congregation Sherith Israel. Although he spent most of his adult life living in Europe, Rosenthal was a San Francisco celebrity, especially among the prominent Jews who commissioned the artist to do their portraits, such as I.W. Hellman, Jacob Stern, and Sophie Gerstle Lilienthal. He also did society portraits of leading non-Jews, including sugar magnate Claus Spreckels.

Toby Rosenthal had a popular following as well. He painted grand narrative pictures with historical, mythological, and romantic themes which gained him international fame by the mid-1870s. In 1875, more than a thousand people a day lined up in a downtown art gallery, and paid a 25 cent admission charge, to view Rosenthal's painting Elaine, hailed as no other painting in the city's history. Based on a Tennyson poem, the picture was filled with the romantic poetry and weeping sentimentalism which characterized academic studio painting on the eve of Impressionism and the modern movement. When Elaine was cut from its frame and temporarily stolen, the local newspapers headlined the story and reported the procession of art-lovers filing past the empty picture frame as if at a funeral.

The literary arts also featured Jewish contributors. San Francisco-based Jewish writers included Oscar Weill (brother of Raphael, who started the City of Paris, one of the city's premier department stores), a French Jew who was a musician and critic for the journal Argonaut. Theatrical and musical entertainments were also reviewed in the Daily Dramatic Chronicle, purchased in 1864 by the Jewish brothers Charles and Michael de Young. They eventually transformed it into the San Francisco Chronicle.

One of the major promoters of theatrical culture in the City was David Belasco, a young Jewish actor who shined shoes on Market Street while dreaming of being a producer. He eventually became the city's greatest impresario, writing 150 plays and producing more than 400, including the first American performances of Madame Butterfly. Belsaco went on to Broadway and had a major career there in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Jewish performers of national and international reputation came to San Francisco during the Victorian era. Sarah Isaacs Mencken, Sarah Bernhardt ("the Divine Sarah"), and Katherine Hayes (grandmother of Helen Hayes) all performed on local stages. Fritz Schaal, one of the first conductors of the San Francisco Symphony, left The City to found the Philadelphia Orchestra. Alfred Hertz, another early Jewish symphony conductor, after whom Hertz Music Hall is named at University of California at Berkeley, conducted the fateful evening of April 17,1906, when Enrico Caruso, the world's greatest tenor, performed at the Old Opera House at Fifth and Mission Streets. In fact, sixty of the 300 founders of the San Francisco Symphony were Jewish, as were two of the eight founding directors of the San Francisco Opera, and three of the first six presidents of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

San Francisco as a center for classical repertoire would be reinforced later in the 20th century as several singular Jewish musicians called the city their home. Isaac Stern and Yehudi Menuhin were raised in San Francisco. Ernst Bloch and Darius Milhaud, who worked nearby, composed Jewish sacred music. The Haas Family eventually established the popular Stern Grove Summer Series, free public concerts in an outdoor park setting.

But the Jewish population was not entirely highbrow. At the other end of the spectrum, Jews participated in and contributed to the popular culture, For example, the city's pugilistic spirit was well represented by the boxer Joe Choynski, a Polish Jew, who fought James Corbett, world heavyweight title holder, in 1889. The match began in Fairfax, was interrupted in the 4th round by the sheriff, and continued on a barge in the steamy summer heat at Benicia in the North Bay region. Choynski lost one of the most grueling fights in American boxing history.

Jewish Architecture

As the second half of the 19th century passed and the Jewish community prospered, Jewish facilities were created which would become the public face of the community. Several significant works of Jewish architecture were constructed. The most impressive was the new Congregation Emanu-El, designed by the British architect William Paxton, on the site of what is now the art deco 450 Sutter Building, near Union Square. In 1864 the cornerstone was laid for a great cathedral-like edifice, seating 1200 persons (the third largest synagogue in the nation)
and including features not unlike its Christian counterparts: a choir loft; a huge medieval, gothic nave; and a large Magen David stained glass window (instead of a Rose Window). Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger, the long-time leader of Congregation Emanu-El, was the Bishop of the Jews.

Most dramatic were the twin exterior towers, capped by bronze-plated bulbous domes, rising 176 feet into the sky. These are visible in Edwaerd Muybridge's panoramic photographs of San Francisco taken in the 1890s from the roof of the Stanford mansion on Nob Hill. As one of the most conspicuous architectural features of San Francisco's skyline, Emanu-El's towers unmistakably announced the presence of the Jewish community.

The other distinguished building of the Jewish community in late Victorian San Francisco was the new Congregation Sherith Israel, completed in 1905, just before the Great Earthquake and, fortunately, beyond the zone of the Great Fire. This building was actually the fifth one for the Congregation (including rented quarters) in less than fifty years, previous structures in the downtown area having burned down in San Francisco's frequent fires. Designed by a Mexican architect, Alfred Pissis, the structure is capped by a large dome rising eighty feet from the synagogue floor, resting on four large pendentives.

Temple Sherith Israel, 1905
Courtesy of Museum of American Jewish History

The synagogue design is inspired by Old World Sephardic traditions, including intricate Honduran mahogany woodwork, Italian stained glass windows depicting Biblical themes, and elaborate fresco wall paintings. The entire interior is embellished with calligraphic and other decorations inspired by Near East traditions. The windows on the west side show Moses with the Ten Commandments, with El Capitan and Half-Dome of Yosemite National Park, as well as the American flag, visible in the background to emphasize Sherith Israel's Western and American heritage.

Click here for Part 2.


In January 1847, the first U.S. district commissioner, Washington Bartlett, who was descended from a prominent Sephardic (of Spanish or North African origins) family, the Henriquez of Charleston, South Carolina, changed the name of the town of Yerba Buena to San Francisco
Perhaps the most famous Jewish immigrant of this period was Levi Strauss, world-renowned for his sturdy workpants made out of heavy denim
The Jews from Germany and Central Europe formed Congregation Emanu-El ("God is with Us"), and the Jews from Prussian Poland and Eastern Europe established Congregation Sherith Israel ("loyal remnant of Israel")


> Mission Dolores
> Congregation Beth Israel


+ History of Emanu-El
+ Presidio History
+ Adolph Sutro


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