Jewish Community Relations Councilof San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin, Sonoma, Alameda and Contra Costa Counties

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Amazing Story of #SFJewishHeritage, Part 2

May 13, 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 2: Community

Despite the strong foundation established during the Gold Rush, members of today’s Bay Area Jewish community are mostly not descended from the early settlers. Like the city itself, the community has transformed multiple times over the years. No matter how much changed, however, the Jewish community thrived.

The first changes started at the turn of the century with an influx of thousands of Yiddish-speaking immigrants. Many newcomers took up residence in the Fillmore District, which became San Francisco’s most Jewish neighborhood in the 1920s and 1930s. By all accounts it was a lively and flourishing quarter. But by the 1940s things were changing again, and Jewish families began to relocate around the greater Bay Area.

During the early 40s, San Francisco’s Jewish community hotly debated the merits of Zionism. However, these mixed feelings did not last long. In fact, almost immediately after the formation of the modern nation of Israel in 1948, San Franciscans began to provide significant monetary and material support. Benjamin Swig, for example, who owned and operated the Fairmont Hotel, was one of the founders of Israel Bonds and acted as its Northern California chairman from 1951 to 1979.

Meanwhile, new immigrants, as well as American-born Jews from the East and Mid-West, continued to flow into the city. Starting in the late 1960s, Soviet Jewish émigrés started to come to San Francisco to escape anti-Semitism; the city has now become one of the major centers of settlement in North America. More recently, the Bay Area -- particularly the South Peninsula -- has also become home to tens of thousands of Israeli ex-pats.

Throughout all the shifts the community has remained civically involved and politically active, supporting the struggle for Civil Rights and other calls for social justice. Later, it would be prominently involved with both the counterculture and the gay-rights movement. Notably, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, founded in 1977, was one of the first synagogues in the country formed expressly for LGBTQ Jews.

This political engagement produced many leaders of national prominence. The first Jewish woman to serve in Congress, Florence Kahn, hailed from San Francisco. Other Bay Area Jewish political luminaries include Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay office holder in any political office in America, as well as both of California’s current U.S. Senators, Dianne Feinstein (who was also San Francisco’s third Jewish mayor) and Barbara Boxer.

The Bay Area has also been a stomping ground for famous Jewish artists: Painter Bernard Zakheim (known for Coit Tower’s amazing murals), poet Allen Ginsberg, comedian Lenny Bruce, and sculptor Jacques Schnier, to name a few. And, of course, the city could not have become synonymous with rock music without the efforts of Bill Graham, who came to California after narrowly escaping the Holocaust.

Continuous philanthropy has bolstered existing organizations, brought new entities -- such as the Contemporary Jewish Museum -- into existence, and generally tied together what is arguably the most diverse and secular Jewish community in the U.S. In so many ways, San Francisco is what it is because of its Jewish heritage, and the community continues to have a profound impact on the character of the entire Bay Area. As author Stephen Mark Dobbs remarked in the Encyclopedia of San Francisco:

The fabric of Jewish life in San Francisco is richer than ever. A multitude of choices -- for worship, for social and cultural life, for self-study or group education -- exist throughout the local community. It thrives in one of the most providential locations in the entire Diaspora. … The local Jewish Community also takes great pride in the fact that its history is intertwined with that of the great city of San Francisco.

Click Here for Part 1

PHOTO (from left): Florence Prag Kahn, member of the U.S. House of Representatives (D-California), 1914; Passover Seder at the home of Rabbi Mayer Hirsch, circa 1920; Harvey Milk with his sister-in-law in front of Castro Camera in 1973; Bill Graham at a Cosby, Stills Nash & Young concert, August 1974; Rabbi Doug Kahn speaking about plight of Soviet Jewry at a rally in the 1980s, Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, by Sebastian Wallroth, 2008; San Francisco Pride 2014 by Sarah Stierch.


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 for this event, but registration is required.