When intrepid Jews journeyed around the Horn or overland in 1848 as part of the migration west, little did they imagine that they would be helping to found one of the most dynamic Jewish communities in America. San Francisco—the city that sparked the imagination of a nation—is the home of Northern California’s landmark temple, Congregation Emanu-El. Officially established in 1850, our congregation has over 2,100 households, many of whom have been involved with the congregation since its founding. We are the oldest congregation west of the Mississippi.
Dedicated in April 1926, the magnificent building at Lake Street and Arguello Boulevard is the third site of this congregation. Designed primarily by Arthur Brown, Jr. (designer of the War Memorial Opera House, the Hoover Library at Stanford and, with two others, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge) the building was influenced by the Haggia Sophia in Istanbul. From the exterior of the dome (150 feet) to the four-manual Skinner organ to the nine-foot high jewel box which is the Ark itself, the Main Sanctuary is a place of dignity, power and peace. In 1927, the American Institute of Architects selected Temple Emanu-El as the finest piece of architecture in Northern California. The Awards Committee honored it as, “a glorious building… beautifully planned and modeled… realizing to the highest degree the expression of its religious character.”
It is not only our buildings that stand as a beacon of Reform Judaism in our community. Our lay leaders, clergy, and members have always been leaders in our community’s religious, civic, business, and social life as well. Our congregation’s commitment to helping the secular community began as far back as 1849 – 1850. The Eureka Benevolent Society, which in a few years became the largest Jewish organization in the West (Jewish Family and Children’s Services), was formed by many who became active at Temple Emanu-El. The first two presidents of Emanu-El were local officeholders and Jews were part of California State government, serving in the State Assembly, on the State Supreme Court, and in other key positions.
In 1859, Emanu-El congregants raised nearly $3700 on behalf of persecuted Moroccan Jews. This set a precedent for congregational involvement in support of Jews around the world that is continued to this day. Commitment to our local community is evidenced through our renewed mission statement and is exemplified by our members, our community service projects, and our community partnership projects funded through the Emanu-El Community Service Fund.