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Amazing Story of #SFJewishHeritage, Part 1

May 6, 2015
Posted by: Jeremy Russell, Communications Manager

May is Jewish American Heritage Month, a national month of recognition of the more than 350-year history of Jewish contributions to American culture. In recognition, JCRC is featuring a two-part overview of San Francisco Jewish Heritage, a.k.a. #SFJewishHeritage.

Part 1: Pioneers

Between 1840 and 1880, the European Jewish population in America increased from 15,000 to around 250,000. During this same time, the United States increased its size by a third with a series of annexations and acquisitions that included California. With this expansion came opportunities for new immigrants, and Jews played a prominent roll all across the Western Frontier. The California Gold Rush brought a great many of them all the way to the coast.

The new California Jews built a society with a strong social network. During the Gold Rush of 1849, a small group held the first celebration of Rosh Hashanah in San Francisco, an event which has been commemorated with a bronze plaque on Montgomery Street. When California was admitted to the Union the next year, two Jews – Elkan Heydenfeldt and Isaac Cardozo – were part of the state’s first legislature. That same year, California’s first synagogue, Temple Emanu-El was established. The San Francisco synagogue’s founders went on to organize schools, relief organizations and newspapers in the city.

As San Francisco grew, its Jewish population increased. By 1870, the percentage of Jews living in the city is said to have rivaled or even surpassed that of New York. Many of the businesses created by Jews at the time have become synonymous with the city: 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 Levi Strauss.

San Francisco’s first Jewish Mayor, Washington Bartlett, whose mother was Sephardic, was elected in 1882. In 1886, he went on to become California’s first (and so-far only) Jewish governor. The second Jewish mayor of San Francisco was the illustrious Adolph Sutro. Sutro is also regarded as San Francisco’s first major philanthropist, having sponsored public gardens and, of course, the legendary Sutro Baths at Lands End.

In many ways San Francisco’s defining moment was the earthquake of 1906. The tragic event brought an era to an end and marked the beginning of a new stage. It was a shattering and transformative event for the city’s Jewish community, as well. The towers of Temple Emanu-El toppled and many businesses burned to the ground. However, by the 1920s San Francisco rebounded and there came a period of tremendous growth which was bolstered by the Jewish community’s vigorous participation.

Click Here for Part 2

PHOTO: Temple Emanu-El before and after the 1906 earthquake.


Please, join us at San Francisco City Hall on May 20th at 6:00pm for the city’s first-ever celebration of Jewish Heritage Month! There is no charge, but registration is required.