by Henry Schwartz
Copley Award, San Diego History Center 1981 Institute of History
TEMPLE BETH ISRAEL, the second oldest synagogue structure extant in the American West, was built in the wake of the San Diego boom of 1886-1888.1 Jews who came only in a trickle between 1850 and 1880, suddenly came in a stream. The observant among them sought to reaffirm their Judaic faith, causing a religious ferment. Their piety reached an apex at sundown on September 25, 1889, when they gathered at Second and Beech Street to greet the Jewish New Year of 5650 and pray in their own house of worship.2
The stimulant for their migration was the Great Boom of the 1880s. San Diego, long a prisoner of its geography, burst free in late 1885. The railroad connection to the East rapidly transformed an isolated Western town into a bustling city. It came into being, in Joaquin Miller’s graphic phrase, “as suddenly born as if shot from a gun.”3 The population leaped from 2,637 in 1880 to a peak of 40,000 in early 1888.4 Among the horde of newcomers were Jewish merchants and tradesmen seeking to improve their lives.
They came to fill an economic vacuum. They knew that a spiraling population created a spiraling demand for goods and services. Often with only “bits and pieces” of mercantile experience, they came to satisfy the demand by opening stores. While clothing and groceries were their favorite fields, they also founded a bank, sold books and stationery, served French ice cream and owned an opera house.5
Some of these men joined Congregation Beth Israel. Uprooted from their attachments, they could have assimilated into the Christian community, but instead they chose to seek new Jewish attachments. Their added numbers enlarged the congregation to sixty male members, many with families.6 This emboldened the congregation to hire its first full-time rabbi, Samuel Freuder (1888-1889).7 In the autumn Rabbi Freuder officiated before nearly 300 Jewish worshippers—an unprecedented number—in the Turnverein Hall on the High Holy Days (Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement.)8
It hadn’t always been so. Long a wandering congregation, meeting in homes, halls and Christian churches, the early Jews hoped that some day sufficient coreligionists would arrive to build a temple. The big boom brought enough Jews and in the ensuing religious fervor, Temple Beth Israel was built. In 1889 the religious Jews were thrilled to hear in their own synagogue the sound of the shofar (a ram’s horn) greeting the Jewish New Year. A dream had been realized.
The dream began thirty-eight years before. Then only three Jews worshipped together; in 1851 two men joined with Lewis A. Franklin in his Old Town home to observe Yow Kippur (the Day of Atonement), to fast and pray for the forgiveness of their sins.9 In the next six years a handful gathered for the annual holy days. In 1859, however, their numbers reached a minyan (a quorum of ten men traditionally required for a service); a room, as Franklin wrote, was devoutly “set apart by us as a temporary synagogue.”10
In 1861 San Diego Jewry organized a congregation, the first in Southern California. An Old Town merchant, Marcus Schiller, met with nine others to form Adath Yeshurun (Assembly of Israel).11 But then the economic pendulum swung against them: a drought in 1863 became so severe by the following year as to damage agriculture and ranching, destroying crops and killing cattle.12 This stifled business in Old Town. Only a few Jewish families remained, and apparently Adath Yeshurun dissolved.13
With brightening business prospects in the early 1870s, however, Schiller tried again. The Scott railroad boom caused an influx to Alonzo Horton’s New San Diego.14 In 1871 there were fifty Jewish men, along with fourteen women and thirty-four children.15 So Schiller and others formed the First Hebrew Benevolent Society, for “assisting the needy, attending to the sick, and burying the dead . . . “16 Yet in 1873 the boom collapsed with the railroad, and again the population dwindled.17 Only about fifteen Jewish men and their families remained.18 Again Schiller failed.
Schiller’s big opportunity came in 1886. The completion of the California Southern railroad connection to the East in November, 1885, began a frenzied real estate and building boom.19 Among the torrent of people inundating San Diego were sufficient Jews to encourage Schiller to try again. In the autumn of 1886 he and others informally organized Beth Israel (House of Israel), and formally established the congregation with forty male members on January 3, 1887.20
They thought of building. In the autumn of 1886 a newspaper reporter wrote the Jews “are taking steps for the erection of a building to be used as a synagogue and a school for religious instruction.”21 Congregation Beth Israel incorporated in February, 1887; a stated purpose was to erect a synagogue “and acquiring real estate for such a site . . . “22
They were not alone. The flush times set off a church building boom.23 In 1887 the Episcopalians built a new St. Paul’s.24 In the same year the Methodist Episcopalians completed two churches in San Diego, and one in Coronado.25 The German-First Methodist congregation also built that year.26 Christian steeples were rising skyward. More churches were planned for 1888.
Beth Israel, however, ran into itself. Their planners envisaged a large temple to accommodate expected future growth; on September 1, 1887, the San Diego Union noted that congregants were talking of a synagogue to cost $20,000.27 But the darkening clouds of a slump appeared in early 1888; property prices began to skid; hotels emptied; the population shrank to 16,000.28 Fund-raising became difficult. Some congregants thought prudence dictated postponing construction.
Others urged building. After all, San Diego was now a city, with many buildings and street cars. The Jews that remained were convinced of San Diego’s bright future. Rabbi Freuder urged going ahead. In a High Holy Days sermon in 1888 he “strongly urged his hearers to renew their allegiance to the sacred faith by endeavoring to establish a permanent place of worship in San Diego.”29 The hard decision was made: build.
The site and finance committees busied themselves. Two adjacent lots at the northwest corner of Second and Beech Street were purchased for $5,000.30 Samuel Fox recalled the congregation raised $3,500 and some $2,500 came from borrowing.31 The Beth Israel ladies put on an outstanding “Jewish Fair” that raised $1,500.32 Additional funds were raised by selling seats in the new temple.33
Realism, however, forced a drastic paring down. Instead of a $20,000 synagogue, one was built that cost between $3,500 and $4,500.34 A Weekly Sun reporter found that most congregants preferred an edifice like the Keener Chapel of the Unitarian Church, a small, unpretentious structure, which they had previously rented for services.35 Bids were received in mid-July, 1889, and construction commenced shortly thereafter.36 No evidence has been found of an architect.
Carpenters erected a redwood synagogue. Similar to gabled Christian churches, it, however, had a rather unique squarish front facade. Double wooden tablets, symbolic of the Ten Commandments, stood at the pinnacle. Craftsmen made seven stained-glass windows embellished with the six-pointed Star of David. Painters covered the exterior with light brown paint and gave it a contrasting “chocolate” brown trim.37
Inside the front entrance were two anterooms, with steps up to an organ loft. Inside the sanctuary four wooden arched trusses supported a ceiling painted sky blue. The side walls were painted French gray, with three round-arch windows painted yellow, blue and rose. A chandelier hung from the ceiling. At the front was a small, raised pulpit area. In the rear wall was the Ark of the Covenant, a wall insert that housed the torah (the five books of Moses). Above it hung an eternal light.38
This temple differed from Orthodox synagogues. In 1887 Beth Israel allied itself with a new current in Judaism, the Reform Movement, a revised and liberalized version of Judaism.39 In an Orthodox synagogue the sexes are segregated in seating, but this new Reform temple had mixed seating. The Orthodox do not allow organ and chorus music in a service, but this new temple was built with an organ loft, and a chorus was later organized.
The religious zeal continued into the early 1890s. A new rabbi, Marx Moses (1890-1893), held regular Friday night services.40 Eighty men, many with families, belonged; fifty children were enrolled in the religious school.41 The congregation was also blessed with strong, new leadership, eventually to replace the “old guard” of Marcus Schiller and Joseph Mannasse. They were the brothers Simon and Adolph Levi, Samuel I. Fox, Abraham Blockman and Louis Mendelson. Through the bleak years just ahead, the religious leadership and financial support of these men would save the congregation from dissolution.42
The sharp economic downturn badly hurt the congregation. The collapse of the 1886-1888 boom faded into the Panic of 1893. Some local banks failed; many San Diegans lost their savings.43 Another exodus out of San Diego occurred. With a declining congregation and treasury, the board found itself hard pressed to meet its financial obligations. Rabbi Moses departed.44 The religious school went downhill, Friday night services ceased, further demoralizing the eighteen or twenty families that remained.45
The temple fell into limited use. To garner additional revenue a desperate board voted to share the facility. The First Universalists rented the sanctuary for parts of 1893 and 1894.46 After the Universalists, the board rented the building to the Christian Scientists for ten dollars a month; from February 3, 1895 to December 27, 1905, the temple was also known as the First Church of Christ, Scientist.47 By 1900 the congregation had only about fourteen families.48
In 1905, however, the local economy revived. Again, the fortunes of Beth Israel were determined by the ups and downs of the local economy. More Jews came to settle. Among these were Orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe, escaping persecution. In 1905 they held separate services at the temple.49 Improved membership and finances enabled the board to hire Rabbi Emil Ellinger (1909-1912), who revitalized the congregation’s religious life.50 In a new revival, the temple was renovated and rededicated on September 10, 1909.51
Continued growth created a unique problem for the board: inadequate facilities. After World War I, the population reached 74,683 in 1920.52 With more Jews than ever, in 1921 the board voted to expand the loft into a full balcony.53 And a recreation structure, built by the Jewish Welfare Board for Jewish service men at Camp Kearney, was moved in 1920 to the front of the adjacent lot, where it served as a Jewish community center, with classes, meetings and social events.54
The quantitative growth in membership was matched by qualitative growth in religious leadership. Better prepared and qualified rabbis came, notably Montague N.A. Cohen (1912-1916) and Maxwell H. Dubin (1922-1925).55 They raised the intellectual level and fostered a wide range of programs, such as Bible study classes, women’s and young people’s clubs, bringing a richer religious and social life to the congregation.
Finally the board recommended to the membership building for the future. They purchased the property on the northwest corner of Third and Laurel Street for $11,000.56 Fund-raising began. M. Trepte and Sons built the new temple, which was dedicated on May 14, 1926.57 The congregation sold the Second and Beech property.
The old temple had several tenants under two ownerships during the following twelve years. Among the tenants were the Biblical Institute of Spiritualism, the Volunteers of America Mission, and the Scottish Clan Society who named the structure Cameron Hall.58 J.W. Lever owned the real estate until 1932, when the First National Trust and Savings Bank acquired title.59
The Fraternal Spiritualist Church acquired the property in 1938.60 Unaffiliated, this spiritualist group was led by an Ohio-born psychic, H. Robert Moore.61 They purchased the land and building from the bank for $7,500. A four man deputation managed to scrape together the $500 down payment among themselves, and the spiritualists, after years of renting facilities, had their own church.
The temple was in sad disrepair. The spiritualists, however, pitched in to renovate the edifice. They reroofed the building and removed the large balcony in the sanctuary. As there were no seats, they acquired miscellaneous chairs, later purchasing 125 theatre seats from the Balboa Theatre, which they dismantled, repainted, and recovered.62 They also remodeled the altar and built a seance room behind the pulpit for Pastor Moore.
Still, the spiritualists had hard times. “There were times when the membership dropped so low, it seemed impossible to carry on,” the church history states.63 In 1954 they suffered the loss by death of their leader, Pastor Moore. In 1962 the social hall which they had named Lotus Lodge, burned.64 Firemen saved the adjacent temple by leaning ladders on the gabled roof and warding off the leaping flames by water hoses.65
Nonetheless, the spiritualists persevered. They stood the storm of criticism, controversy, lack of interest and lack of money. Before the fire, members served turkey meals at the Lotus Lodge for thirty-five cents to help with the trust deed payments to the bank.66 Under the presidency of James Bradford and his pastor-wife, Alice Demer Bradford, the spiritualists increased their flock to 130.
In 1973 Rabbi Joel Goor of the new Temple Beth Israel became concerned. He saw high-rise buildings coming near Second and Beach; he feared, as he put it, the old temple was “in the path of demolition . . . “67 He saw the Holiday Inn a block to the north, Luther Tower across the street, and tall buildings to the south. He urged his board to attempt to have the little temple declared a historic building. “We felt we better protect it, just in case,” he declared.68
This was done. On June 1, 1973, it became San Diego Historic Site No. 82.69 This would delay a demolition permit, thus giving interested parties time to move the historic edifice. Five years later, on May 22, 1978, at the urging of Supervisor Jim Bates and the recommendation of the State Historical Resources Commission, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.70
Meanwhile, Congregation Beth Israel sought to repurchase its original temple. This author urged the board to negotiate with the Fraternal Spiritualist Church; a $10,000 offer was made.71 After considerable internal discussion, the spiritualists accepted the offer for the edifice.72 They planned to rent the two lots as a parking lot, meet in a nearby rented hall and eventually to build their own church.
The escrow, however, bore an important contingency: the County of San Diego must accept the historic temple as a gift from Congregation Beth Israel, move it to Heritage Park, near San Diego’s Old Town, and restore the exterior.73 James Milch, President of Beth Israel, worked with the Board of Supervisors, and on June 22, 1978, on the recommendation of Supervisor Jim Bates, the Board accepted.74 Later that year the temple was moved to Heritage Park.
At the present time the temple awaits restoration and opening to the public. With State of California funds the County will restore the exterior in early 1982; public donations will be sought for the interior. Plans call for it to be a museum of the early church history of San Diego. It will serve as a reminder that religion has long been an integral part of life in San Diego and of those individuals who came West and reaffirmed their convictions, such as those Jews who resisted the temptation of assimilation and, clinging tenaciously to their heritage, built a temple.
1. Letter from Norton B. Stern to Seymour Rabin, November 27, 1970, p. 2. The first is Temple Beth Sholom, San Leandro, California. Western States Jewish Historical Quarterly, IX (July, 1977), p. 322.
2. San Diego Daily Sun, September 25, 1889, p. 5.
3. Richard F. Pourade, The Glory Years (San Diego: Union Tribune Publishing Company, 1964), p. 37
4. Elizabeth C. MacPhail, The Story of New San Diego and of its Founder, Alonzo E. Horton (San Diego, 1969), p. 71.
5. The Jewish Progress, San Francisco, April 17, 1896, p. 5.
6. San Diego Union, September 7, 1888, p. 5.
9. San Diego Herald, October 9, 1851, p. 2.
10. Letter from Lewis A. Franklin, reprinted in The Occident, Philadelphia, December 22, 1859, p. 1.
11. Weekly Gleamer, San Francisco, July 12, 1861.
12. Richard F. Pourade, The Silver Dons (San Diego: Union Tribune Publishing Company, 1963), pp. 252-253.
13. The Hebrew, San Francisco, October 13, 1871.
14. MacPhail, The 5tory of New San Diego, p. 44.
15. The Hebrew, October 13, 1871.
16. Union, September 21, 1871, p. 3.
17. MacPhail, The Story of New San Diego, pp. 48-49.
18. Ronald G. Gerson, “Jewish Religious Life in San Diego, California, 1851-1912” (Unpublished thesis, 1974), p. 33, San Diego History Center Library and Manuscripts Collection.
19. MacPhail, The Story of New San Diego, pp. 71-77.
20. Office of the County Clerk, February 16, 1887.
21. Union, September 25, 1886, p. 3.
22. Office of the County Clerk, February 16, 1887.
23. MacPhail, The Story of New San Diego,p. 77.
24. San Diego City and County Directory, 1887-1888, p. 40.
27. Union, September 1, 1887, p. 3.
28. MacPhail, The Story of New San Diego, p. 95.
29. Union, September 7, 1888, p. 5.
30. Deed, Book 142, County Recorder, January 19, 1889, p. 365. Amusingly, in the early 1900s the secretary of the congregation received instructions to inform the owners of the chickens wandering about the temple premises to remove them. Myron Lustig, The Anniversary Story of Congregation Beth Israel (San Diego, 1952), p. 23.
31. Samuel I. Fox, “Looking Backward,” The San Diego Jewish Community News, September 20, 1922, p. 6.
32. Union, March 3, 1889, p. 5.
33. Daily Sun, September 25, 1889, p. 5.
34. Union, September 7, 1889, p. 8. This reports the cost at $3,500. But Union, June 11, 1902, p. 5, mentions $4,500 as the cost; perhaps the latter figure includes furniture and ritualistic requirements.
35. Lustig, The Anniversary Story, p. 17.
36. Union, July 18, 1889, p. 5.
37. Daily Sun, September 25, 1889, p. 5.
39. Union, November 4, 1886. Rev. Schreiber of Congregation B’ nai B’ rith of Los Angeles was invited to San Diego to explain Reform Judaism; the High Holy Days services the following year were Reform, with an organ and choir. Union, September 20, 1887, p. 3.
40. Union, March 14, 1890, p. 6.
41. An Illustrated History of Southern California (Chicago, 1890), p. 78.
42. Gerson, “Jewish Religious Life,” pp. 70-74.
43. Pourade, The Glory Years, pp. 225-226.
44. Union, February 3, 1893, p. 5.
45. Gerson, “Jewish Religious Life,” p. 69.
46. Constitution, By-Laws and Minutes of Ladies Aid of the Church of Our Father, April 6, 1894, p. 44, San Diego History Center Library and Manuscripts Collection.
47. Letter from Robert J. Golder to James E. Moss, July 6, 1975, p. 1.
48. American Jewish Year Book, 1900-1901 (Philadelphia, 1901), p. 196.
49. Hyman S. Wolf, “Reminiscences of San Diego Jewry,” p. 1, San Diego Historical Society Library and Manuscripts Collection.
50. Gerson, “Jewish Religious Life,” p. 84.
51. Martin A. Meyer, Western Jewry (San Francisco, 1916), p. 71.
52. Richard F. Pourade, Gold in the Sun (San Diego: Union Tribune Publishing Company, 1965), p. 264.
53. Lustig, The Anniversary Story, p. 28.
54. Ibid., pp. 27-28.
55. Gerson, “Jewish Religious Life,” pp. 94-100. Myron Lustig, The Anniversary Story, p. 28.
56. Ibid., p. 29.
58. San Diego City and County Directory, 1927 to 1937. In moving the temple to Heritage Park, workmen found evidence of another tenant; they uncovered signs above the pulpit: “God is love”; “Let no unkind word be spoken in this temple”; and “Mission of Augustine Healing Temple.”
59. Record of Title to Lot G, Block 207.
61. James Bradford, “The History of the Fraternal Spiritualist Church and Founder, Dr. Moore” (San Diego, undated), p. 1.
62. Ibid., p. 2.
64. Union, August 11, 1962, p. 15.
65. Interview with James Bradford, September 8, 1976. Author recalls Lotus Lodge as long, frame structure, with a flat roof, front porch, consisting of a social hall and kitchen.
66. Bradford, ‘The History of Fraternal Spiritualist Church,” p. 2.
67. Union, December 8, 1973, p. B-11.
69. Historic Site Register, San Diego History Center Library and Manuscripts Collection.
70. Letter from Knox Mellon to Fraternal Spiritualist Church, June 12, 1978.
71. Letter from Joan Jacobs to Fraternal Spiritualist Church, August 25, 1977.
72. Letter from James Bradford to Joan Jacobs, September 19, 1977.
73. Escrow Instructions G-1025379, Title Insurance and Trust Company, September 19, 1977, San Diego, California.
74. Letter from Jim Bates to author, June 30, 1978.
THE PHOTOGRAPHS are from the San Diego History Center’s Title Insurance and Trust Collection. The drawing on page 234 is courtesy of Marc Tarasuck, AIA and Associates.