History - How Beautiful is Our Heritage
160 years and Still Going Strong
By Judie Panneton
As we reflect on our past 160 years as a congregation, B'nai Israel members have many reasons to be proud: our pioneer past, our ability to adapt to change, and our strength to overcome obstacles. We have a rich history, filled with early settlers who practiced Judaism in their homes and in storefronts within what is now Old Sacramento, and who made monumental decisions about whether to remain an Orthodox synagogue or to adopt the thinking and practices of the Reform movement.
While memories of the destructive fires of the summer of 1999 remain fresh, history demonstrates that adversity is something that Congregation B'nai Israel has risen above, over and over again. The following information about B'nai Israel's history illustrates how, much the past continues to be part of the present.
B'nai Israel's humble beginning can be traced back to the fall of 1849, when shop owners and crafts people gathered to celebrate the High Holy Days in Old Sacramento, the supply base and transportation hub for the bustling mining towns of the Mother Lode. During the Gold Rush, there was an influx of Jews, most of who came from Europe. Among them was merchant Moses Hyman, who invited fellow Jews into his Front Street home. a building which also housed his jewelry store. Because of his role in organizing the Jews, Hyman became known as both a pioneer of California Judaism and the father of Temple B'nai Israel. He was just one of many Jews who contributed their time and knowledge to enrich the Jewish community and society as a whole.
It was the Jews who came forward to help when floods ripped through Sacramento in January, 1850. Hyman was a founder of the Hebrew Benevolent Society, which cared for the sick and the poor. Help came from Albert Priest, another Jew who worshipped with Hyman's group. Priest, also a co-founder of Congregation B'nai Israel, is believed to have been the 'first Jewish settler in Sacramento, which was then known as New Helvetia. Priest operated a dry goods store in Sutter's Fort, which had been built in the early 1840s. During the floods of 1850, Priest donated $1,000 toward a survey to determine where the city should build its levees.
To accommodate the deaths caused by the floods, Hyman purchased land for a Jewish burial ground on a lot south of J Street between 32nd and 33rd streets, the original Home of Peace Cemetery. With a cemetery in place, Hyman and his fellow Jews bought an official house of worship from a Methodist Episcopal congregation and named it Congregation B'nai Israel, "Children of Israel." The Jewish chapel was opened on September 2, 1852, at the corner of 7th and L Streets, making it the first congregationally owned synagogue west of the Mississippi River.
A fire swept through Sacramento just two months later, destroying the chapel as well as 85 percent of the city. Because an arbitrator ruled that Congregation B'nai Israel did not own the property on which the chapel stood, its members had to search for another location for their house of worship.
During the 1850s, Congregation B'nai Israel operated out of three homes on 5th Street. In keeping with Orthodox tradition, men and women had separate seating. According to an article in the Sacramento Union, " The females take no part in the exercises, except the repetition of the prayers. They are hidden from view, in the back seats, and by their silence and seclusion, reminds one of the veiled inmates in Mohammedan mosques."
In 1858, Congregation B'nai Israel was on the move again, buying another place of worship from the Methodist Episcopalian group at 7th and L Streets, which had been built on the same property where the congregation's first chapel was located. However, during the renovation of the new property, there was a split in the congregation over who to hire as its religious leader. One group left and formed a new congregation, B'nai Ha Shalom, "Children of Peace."
The next few years brought more adverse circumstances. In 1861, the congregation lost another synagogue to fire. Then, during the following winter, flood waters caused costly and heartbreaking damage to the grave sites of loved ones in the Jewish cemetery. But once again, adversity brought strength and unity. Congregations B'nai Israel and B'nai Ha Shalom mourned together and once again joined to form one congregation, B'nai Israel.
It was not until 1864 that the congregation established its third permanent home in a former concert hall for the First Presbyterian Church on 6th Street.
The congregation continued its Orthodox practices until 1879, when the Reform Movement was gaining popularity. Major changes were adopted, including shorter services in English and the installation of an organ in the temple. With such major changes in philosophy and practices, congregants debated which traditions to keep and which ones to discard. One issue was whether hats should be required in the temple. At one point, those in favor sat on one side of the room and those against, on the other side. The split between Orthodox and Reform Jews led to formation of another congregation in Sacramento. Those who favored Orthodox practices joined the Mosaic Law Synagogue. Touting itself as a con- gregation of "Reformed 'Israelites:' Congregation B'nai Israel had grown in size to 107 families.
That split, however, did not weaken Congregation B'nai Israel, which relocated again in 1904, this time to 1421 Fifteenth Street. Eight years later, a stove in the basement overheated and set the building on fire while Sunday school was in session. No one was hurt in the fire, but the damage was so extensive that it took a year before the temple could be used again as a place of worship.
The I5th Street site served as Congregation B'nai Israel's religious home for more than 30 years, at which time Board President Dalton Feldstein successfully promoted the idea of relocating to the present temple site at 3600 Riverside Boulevard. A major fund-raising campaign was launched in order to make the dream become a reality. In 1954, the new temple was dedicated, thanks to the hard work of volunteers who raised money and found others to donate materials. An education wing, later named after Buddy Kandel, was added in the early 1960s.
Ten years later, in the 1970s, the congregation was faced with the potential for more upheaval. The City of Sacramento proposed building Interstate 5 on the back part of the congregational site. Because of concerns about construction problems, the temple Board of Trustees formed a committee to investigate the possible relocation north of the American River. Another idea under consideration was that of sharing a new site with Mosaic Law. Both ideas were discussed for numerous months, to no avail, and the congregation remained at its Riverside Boulevard location. Still more turbulence oc- curred in the early 1970s when the congregation's cantor was fired, and approximately 50 families left to form a new synagogue, Temple Beth Shalom.
The man chosen to heal the wounds at B'nai Israel was Rabbi Lester Frazin, who took over the pulpit in January 1974 and remained more than 20 years. Rabbi Frazin continued the B'nai Israel tradition of service to the greater Sacramento area, focusing on helping pregnant teenagers, feeding the hungry and supporting the gay and lesbian communities, in addition to serving as president of the Interfaith Service Bureau.
Previous rabbis had been involved in a number of causes, including demonstrations against pogroms after World War I, organizing institutes for Christian clergy members to improve Judeo-Christian understanding, and conducting services at Folsom State Prison. Rabbi Norman Goldberg made California history when he was elected the first Jewish chaplain of the state Legislature, a position later filled by Rabbi Mona Alfi when she was Assistant Rabbi at Congregation B'nai Israel.
The year 1986 was a time of great celebration. Groundbreaking ceremonies were held to build the Harry M. Tonkin Memorial Chapel, the Sosnick Library, and an administration building. The chapel provides a place for more intimate gatherings for worship and has been an ideal setting for the Ruach Ha-am Shabbat services led by lay members of the congregation.
As our facility was changing, so was our congregation's interest in Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. Areas of involvement have been numerous: Shabbat food deliveries to people with AIDS, Mitzvah Day, children's book collections, High Holy Day food donations to the Sacramento Food Basket, and more.
With the arrival of Rabbi Brad Bloom at B'nai Israel, congregants became more involved in broadening their knowledge of Judaism and alternative forms of worship and spirituality. This gave rise to another major improvement to the temple during the summer of 1998. The Opper Courtyard, built in a style reminiscent of Old Jerusalem, enhances the worship and reception space at the temple .by providing an intimate. peaceful setting for services and life-cycle events.
On June 18, 1999, fires were set at B'nai Israel, Kenesset Israel At B'nai Israel; the library was destroyed, and major damage was sustained in the sanctuary and administration building.
Board President Lou Anapolsky, who saved the Torahs when he checked the sanctuary during the early morning blazes and found several fires burning there, vowed that while buildings may have been destroyed or damaged, the congregation was stronger than ever.
Rabbi Brad Bloom, installed as Rabbi Frazin's successor in 1995, provided comfort to distressed congregants during the morning of the fires, saying, "The feeling of our congregation is Congregants just hours after devastation, June' 8, 1999 fire is shock and numbness. But we are going to move in a positive direction, rebuild and create a stronger community." Undeterred by the fires, Shabbat services were held at the Sacramento Community Center on that very evening. On the following day, June 19th, the Jewish tradition continued, as Max Littman celebrated his Bar Mitzvah, not in the sanctuary as originally planned but at the Sacramento Convention Center.
Religious, ethnic, political, and law enforcement leaders viewed the fires as attacks against the entire community and condemned the arsons. They joined more than 4,000 people at a Unity Rally on June 21 at the Sacramento Community Center in a show of solidarity. Rabbi Bloom, former president of the Interfaith Service Bureau, called for a Museum of Tolerance in response to the hateful fires.
Coming just months before our I5Oth anniversary, the overwhelming support from the community was especially meaningful. Congregation B'nai Israel was embraced by the greater Sacramento, national and international communities.
As the congregation welcomed the Jewish New Year on Rosh Hashanah eve, September 10, 1999, more than I,200 people gathered at the Convention Center. As the worshippers showed tickets to gain access to the room, they were greeted by a poster bearing the sentiment, "We are strong. We are proud. We are together." This is the same sentiment that the early members of Congregation B'nai Israel felt in their hearts and souls when they joined in worship to welcome the new year in Old Sacramento 150 years ago. Ironically, they prayed just blocks away from where the 1999 temple congregants gathered as they awaited the renovation of their sanctuary.
Like the early Jewish settlers, the current members of Congregation B'nai Israel have risen above adversity, knowing that it is not buildings which define a congregation, but rather the people who fill them.