Bay Area Jews ride rough seas in 20th century, historian says

For Jews, the 20th century has been "an enormous struggle for survival, a life-and-death ordeal," says local Jewish historian Fred Rosenbaum.

But amidst of all that angst, the Bay Area's Jewish community has remained a mostly serene outpost, adds Rosenbaum, the founder and executive director of Lehrhaus Judaica, a Bay Area-wide adult school focusing on Jewish culture.

A hundred years ago, there were 15 to 20 formal synagogues in the Bay Area — all but a couple of which were in San Francisco, said Rosenbaum, who has written extensively about the history of Jews in Northern California.

The center of Jewish life here in those days was Temple Emanu-El, which was located on Sutter Street. Congregants included most of the city's influential Jews, and Emanu-El's rabbis were often the West Coast's leading Jewish spokesmen.

Jews at that time numbered among the city's leading citizens, showing up frequently in the local social register.

Probably the biggest issue in the Jewish community back then was the influx of Jews fleeing czarist Russia. German Jews who had firmly established themselves in San Francisco fretted that the Eastern Europeans, who set up shanty shacks south of Market, would turn that district into a hotbed of crime, congestion, disease, orthodoxy and anarchism.

The 1906 earthquake destroyed the shanties. But the earthquake wasn't that year's only disaster, Rosenbaum pointed out. Political boss Abe Ruef, the well-educated son of Alsatian-Jewish immigrants, was indicted and eventually convicted for extortion.

The Roaring Twenties and even the Great Depression had relatively little impact on the Bay Area Jewish community. But World War II made waves. Well before Bay Area Jews knew the whole Holocaust story, Eastern European Jews who had recently fled Russian pogroms were ardently promoting Zionism.

San Francisco's German Jewish elite disparaged the idea of a Jewish state. Their chief spokesman, Emanu-El's then-rabbi Irving Reichert, said that if there was a Jewish state, the United States could assume that Jews weren't fully loyal to America.

So when the facts of the Holocaust came out, and the United States recognized Israel in 1947, German Jews lost some of their power in the community. Reichert's contract with Emanu-El was not renewed.

The late 1940s was also when Benjamin Swig arrived here from Boston. He was the first Jew of Eastern European origin to enter the inner circle of Jewish leadership in San Francisco.

Instead of the quiet, behind-the-scenes philanthropy characteristic of transplanted German Jews, the staunchly Zionist Swig gave concertedly and conspicuously. He sold bonds for Israel, raised money for Brandeis University, founded Camp Swig near Saratoga and once gave a Chrysler Imperial to Israel's then-Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion.

With the rise of McCarthyism in the 1950s, Rabbi Alvin Fine, who had taken over Reichert's post at Emanu-El, began chairing the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. This and his public attacks on McCarthy led the FBI to launch a preliminary investigation against Fine.

Local Jews also participated in the war protests and social experiments of the 1960s. But perhaps the most important development of that decade was that more and more Jews were leaving San Francisco for the suburbs.

As new synagogues sprang up in the outskirts, urban synagogues like Emanu-El lost their prominence.

But in the 1980s, a flood of Jews from around the world began moving to San Francisco, Rosenbaum said.

City synagogues' biggest challenge is to project a livelier image and provide more innovative programming.

Sherith Israel, for example, goes out of its way to attract unmarried people. Congregation Sha'ar Zahav has an outreach program for gay and lesbian Jews.

The last two decades have also seen the growth of the annual Jewish Film Festival, the establishment of two Jewish museums and the spread of educational institutions like Rosenbaum's own Lehrhaus Judaica.

Where the chief issues among many local Jews used to be Israel and the Soviet Union, transmitting Jewish culture to the next generation is an important concern today, Rosenbaum said.

Society is becoming increasingly fragmented and less intellectual, he said, citing the difficulty of trying to connect contemporary students "with a 3,000-year-old civilization that essentially takes place in the mind," Rosenbaum said.

As the 21st century approaches, he says, "What do we have but a body of knowledge, a heritage, the wisdom of the Jewish civilization?"