Jewish Routes // San Francisco

By | Sep 02, 2015

by Sala Levin

San Francisco, the gleaming mecca of all things tech, got its big break during another era of innovation: the Gold Rush of the mid-19th century. Before then, several hundred people lived in Yerba Buena, which became San Francisco in 1847, after the territory was seized by the United States during the 1846 Mexican-American War. After gold was discovered in 1848, the population began to explode. Jews were among the first people to arrive; coming mostly from Bavaria, they sought both to escape anti-Semitism at home and to set up new businesses in a just-beginning-to-boom town. “In many ways, they were the founders of San Francisco,” says Jackie Krentzman, executive producer of American Jerusalem, a documentary film about San Francisco’s Jewish history.

For Rosh Hashanah in 1849, some 30 Jews gathered in San Francisco to usher in the New Year. (A plaque in the 700 block of Montgomery Street commemorates the occasion; services were held in a tent.) Many of the Jews, who had been peddlers and shopkeepers in Europe, applied the same skills in the new country, selling supplies to gold miners. Eventually, some businesses run by these immigrants became household names. The most famous was Levi Strauss, who came from Bavaria and invented denim blue jeans. Adolph Sutro, also from Germany, was trained as an engineer but started out in California as an unsuccessful tobacconist. Eventually, he managed to raise enough money to build a tunnel through Mount Davidson in San Francisco in order to remove gas and water from mine shafts. After selling his shares in the tunnel for millions, Sutro went on to become a real estate investor (at one point he owned one-twelfth of San Francisco) and eventually mayor of San Francisco.

Jews thrived in San Francisco partly because they got in on the ground floor of the city’s growth. “There was no existing hierarchy that Jews had to work themselves into,” says Krentzman. “They created those hierarchies.” In the unsettled West, anti-Semitism hadn’t had a chance to take hold. “They didn’t live in Jewish communities, because they didn’t need to…for protection,” says Krentzman. Instead, they settled by class: “Wealthy Jews lived with wealthy Jews, the poor Jews lived with poor Jews,” Krentzman explains.

Many of the German Jews living in San Francisco came from secular families. Still, they established synagogues and other communal institutions. In 1850, immigrant August Helbing founded the Eureka Benevolent Society, a charitable organization intended to help new Jewish immigrants. It became the Jewish Family and Children’s Services, now the oldest charitable organization of any kind west of the Mississippi, helping families with “whatever problem they may have,” says director Anita Friedman, including services for the elderly, assistance with medical issues and more.

Two synagogues were founded within weeks of each other in 1850: Congregation Emanu-El was started by German and Central European Jews, and Congregation Sherith Israel was formed by Eastern European Jews. The rivalry between the congregations reflected a deeper fissure. “There was a lot of tension between German Jews and Eastern Europeans, who came later,” says Krentzman. Indeed, in 1891, Jewish leaders proposed raising $1 million to create an agricultural colony in Baja California (then Mexican territory) to which Eastern European immigrants could be sent. According to Fred Rosenbaum’s book, Cosmopolitans: A Social and Cultural History of the Jews of the San Francisco Bay Area, Jacob Voorsanger, the rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El, said, “We are confronted by an invasion from the East that threatens to undo the work of two generations of American Jews,” citing the perceived clannishness of the Eastern Europeans. (The so-called Baja plan eventually failed because of legal hurdles and the huge amount of money it would have required.)

Still, Jews generally flourished in northern California, becoming involved in politics and the city’s cultural life. Toby Rosenthal had a successful career as a painter of narrative paintings. Theater producer, director and playwright David Belasco got his start as a young actor in San Francisco and went on to be a major force in the New York theater world of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Brothers Charles de Young and Michael de Young started The Daily Dramatic Chronicle in 1885, which later became The San Francisco Chronicle.

By the 20th century, many Jews lived comfortable lives in the Bay Area. The Fillmore District was home to kosher butcher shops, Hebrew schools and Jewish bakeries. Today, Jewish life is booming, with some 122,000 Jewish residents. Although the Orthodox population isn’t as large as in cities like New York or Los Angeles, four neighborhoods have eruvs (an enclosure that allows residents to carry objects on Shabbat), and there are a number of kosher restaurants and kosher-style delis, as well as several day schools.

Institutions such as the Contemporary Jewish Museum, which was founded in 1984 and features a frequently changing lineup of art exhibits in facilities designed by Jewish Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind, are an important part of Jewish life. Other organizations tackle Jewish life from many points of view: A Wider Bridge works to build connections between Israelis and LGBT North Americans; Wilderness Torah offers programming that encourages “earth-based Judaism”; and G-dcast presents Jewish folktales, Bible stories and more for young people in video and podcast form. Several Hillels serve college students; the Hillel at Stanford University celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Susan Wolfe, president of Hillel at Stanford, says that the event will be marked with “a range of commemorations, including the commission of a new Hillel community Torah.”

San Francisco’s spirit of innovation permeates the Jewish community. “The kind of people that are drawn here are people who are creative and entrepreneurial and insistent,” says Danny Grossman, CEO of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties. “We have a special group of people drawn here that leads them to lots of creativity.”

Bay Area Programs & Events

Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait
Through November 1, 2015
The Amy Winehouse exhibit, brought to the Contemporary Jewish Museum from the Jewish Museum London, celebrates the short life of this singer-songwriter with her belongings, including her guitar and outfits.

Arts & Ideas/Theater & Comedy/ Films/Performing Arts
Entertainment abounds in San Francisco! These cultural programs offer talks and performances by well-known lecturers, entertainers and theater groups at the JCCs of San Francisco, Palo Alto, Sonoma County and Marin County.,,,

Stanford Hillel Half-Century Anniversary Weekend
April 1-3, 2016
Join alumni, community members, students, faculty and staff for a weekend celebrating 50 years of Hillel on Stanford’s stunning Palo Alto campus.

Jewish Film Institute
The Jewish Film Institute (JFI) sponsors the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival each summer and offers many titles for viewing online. The JFI also sponsors a variety of events and projects as well as programs for filmmakers.

Nehirim West Retreat
December 11-13, 2015
The Nehirim West Retreat will bring together LGBT Jews, partners and allies for a “Chanukah Extravaganza Retreat” at the Walker Creek Ranch in Petaluma, CA.

Limmud Bay Area Experience
June 2016
The Limmud Bay Area Experience is a weekend of lively Jewish learning on a wide range of topics.

Russian Jewish Community
The Russian Jewish Community (RJC) sponsors a variety of Jewish, Russian and Israeli cultural opportunities for the Bay Area’s 50,000 Russian-speaking Jews.

Wilderness Torah Festivals
The Wilderness Torah Festivals celebrate land-based Jewish holidays in nature. Festivals include:
Sukkot on the Farm, October 1-4, 2015
Tu B’Shvat in the Redwoods, January 26, 2016
Passover in the Desert, April 28-May 2, 2016 
Shavuot, June 11-12, 2016

San Francisco Heritage Sites

Contemporary Jewish Museum
The CJM sponsors exhibits, performances, lectures, classes and other special events on Jewish culture, history and art in a building designed by architect Daniel Libeskind. Current exhibits include Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait and In That Case: Havruta in Contemporary Art.


Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life
The Magnes Collection includes Jewish art ranging from paintings and sculptures to digital and mixed media as well as exhibits on Jewish Life in the Diaspora. It also houses Jewish archival collections from around the world and the Western Jewish Americana Archives documenting the Jewish experience in the West beginning with the 1848 Gold Rush. Below is a Prohibition-era image of a San Francisco rabbi with barrels of sacramental kosher wine.

jews-fillmore-1-2 (1)

Holocaust Memorial
The Holocaust Memorial, located across from the Legion of Honor Museum, includes sculptures created by artist George Segal.


Congregation Sherith Israel
Dating back to the days of the California Gold Rush, Congregation Sherith Israel’s “new” synagogue opened its doors in 1905. The sanctuary has been preserved close to its original design.


Fine Museum at Congregation Emanu-El
The oldest congregation west of the Mississippi, Congregation Emanu-El currently resides in its third building, dedicated in 1926. The Fine Museum houses a permanent collection of ritual objects as well as several art exhibits held throughout the year.


4 thoughts on “Jewish Routes // San Francisco

  1. Thank you for the interesting article about Jewish history in the San Francisco area. I must note, however, that Charles and Michael de Young did not start the “The Daily Dramatic Chronicle” in 1885, as Charles was killed in 1880. The newspaper was begun in 1865.

  2. cassandra fein says:

    One of the families that came to San Francisco in the early days was the Marcus family, whose daughter, Josie, was the common-law spouse of Wyatt Earp for 30 years. Although Josie was never a practicing Jew, she made sure she was buried by a rabbi in a Jewish cemetery (Hills of Eternity in Colma, Ca), next to her beloved Wyatt, who is also buried there.

  3. Deborah Waroff says:

    How is it that Stanford University became notorious among California Jews for maintaining a strict Jewish quota, notwithstanding Ms Levin’s description of a San Francisco that lacked in anti-Jewish prejudice? I refer to Californians speaking of such a quota in the 1960s in particular. As to when a quota may have originated or when it may have ended, no reports have come to my attention.

  4. Craig Arthur says:

    The Sutro tunnel isn’t in San Francisco. Its in Virginia City, Nevada.

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