Gold Rush-era synagogue marks 150th birthday in Sacramento

A year after arsonists destroyed its library, Sacramento's Congregation B'nai Israel, which claims to be California's oldest, has been marking its 150th year — as well as significant steps toward its recovery.

Along with two other Sacramento-area synagogues, the Reform synagogue fell victim to a string of early morning arson fires in June.

In spite of the million dollar loss, members were strengthened by the outpouring of community support after the fire, when thousands of well-wishers of all faiths attended rallies and unity gatherings in support of the Jewish community and against hate crimes.

"There's a lot of pride," said Rabbi Brad Bloom, "that even though we've suffered a real setback, we'll be able to look back some day and say we came back stronger than ever…We feel a great sense of unity. We're still here, and we're thriving. Life is exciting at B'nai Israel."

Just last week, the synagogue began rehabilitating its administration building, which suffered extensive damage during the fire and was essentially gutted.

"The copy machine melted, the postage machine melted and…there was significant smoke and soot damage," said Arlene Singer, the synagogue's administrator

Work on the library will begin soon.

"We plan to be back in the administration building by the 1st of September and hope to be able to dedicate the library around Chanukah," she said. Meanwhile, the congregation began a capital campaign and has received more than $1.5 million from donations and insurance compensation.

Part of B'nai Israel's strength comes from its long history.

"One hundred fifty years makes for a strong heritage," notes Bloom. "Besides [our] Jewish heritage, there is also the [role] Jews have played as part of the history of Sacramento. We have been a part of California's growth, and we see ourselves as the flagship congregation in the West."

Founded by Jews who followed their dreams westward during the 1849 gold rush, the congregation held its first High Holy Day services above Moses Hyman's store in downtown Sacramento.

Two other congregations that held their first High Holy Day services in 1849 also claim to be California's oldest — San Francisco Congregations Emanu-El and Sherith Israel. However, the Sacramento synagogue, "consecrated in 1852, is the first permanent Jewish house of worship in the state," according to "Pioneer Jews" by Harriet and Fred Rochlin.

That year, the congregation purchased a Methodist church building — a prefab affair that had been shipped around the Horn from Baltimore. It became the first member-owned synagogue west of the Mississippi. Unfortunately, the building burned down later that year.

The Sacramento congregation has grown from under 200 households in the 1850s to 700 today.

In the beginning, B'nai Israel elected to worship in the German tradition, a decision that led to the first of several disputes and splits among the membership. The Polish Jews broke away and started their own congregation. Foreshadowing recent events, a fire in 1861 reunited the two groups.

A visit from Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise in 1877, who was recruiting for the Reform movement, prompted the membership of B'nai Israel to adopt more Reform practices. Congregants began conducting services primarily in English, using Wise's prayerbook, the Minhag America. They also dispensed with their shochet (kosher slaughterer) at that time.

A congregation historian recounted the event.

"Four women ordered four calves' tongues for a Sabbath dinner one Friday night," said Marlene Chernev, "and they knew only one kosher calf was killed, so the women couldn't understand how they got four kosher tongues from one kosher beef. They figured that the shochet was not on the up and up, and he was let go."

By 1880, the temple publicly became a Reform congregation, making the move official in 1885. In the 1890s some of the more Orthodox members broke away to form the Mosaic Law Congregation, which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary.

Another serious split occurred in the 1970s, when the congregation's well-loved cantor, Eli Cohen, was alleged to have engaged in serious misconduct, and the board asked him to leave. He took many families with him when he formed his own synagogue, Congregation Beth Shalom in Carmichael, which was also attacked by arsonists last year.

Longtime member Helen Meret recalls the 1970s incident as "a great sadness."

Rabbi Lester Frazin, who was hired to heal the congregation, said it took "a good five years" to rebuild it.

In the last 150 years, Congregation B'nai Israel has had 26 rabbis. Frazin, who served longest, was its spiritual leader from 1974 through 1995 and is now rabbi emeritus.

When the congregation celebrated its 150th anniversary in October, about 500 people attended the weekend event, including Frazin and former Rabbis Cyrus Arfa and Rabbi Amiel Wohl. Current spiritual leaders Bloom and Rabbi Mona Alfi joined them. During the festivities, the synagogue premiered a film of its history and children in the religious school buried a time capsule.

The congregation has organized a number of other activities. In March, Kenneth Libo, an expert on Jews of the West, was scholar-in-residence. And in April, the synagogue helped the Buddhist Church of Sacramento celebrate its 100th anniversary. The celebration, which was supposed to take place last June, was postponed due to the fire.

"I think the congregation has a great future in store," said Bloom, "and I honor its history."

And despite the recent arson, probably among the most frightening event in the congregation's long history, B'nai Israel has remained intact.

"The fire forced us to cope with a series of tragedies and challenged us to search our souls regarding our commitment to ourselves and our future," said Bloom, "We're continuing to grapple with many different levels of financial, spiritual and personal problems. We feel as if we'd been violated. The question is, are we up to the challenge of building a stronger congregation out of this — building a new spirit?

"I think we are, and we're working very hard at this."

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

A wife and mother of two grown sons, Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist, columnist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County."