San Jose temple marks 140-year history, evolution

The women sashayed down the aisles modeling their hats, gloves, dresses and heels, flashing fancy mink coats.

The men and sons followed in suits and ties. Their daughters in brand-new dresses and patent leather shoes.

But it wasn't the catwalk at a trendy fashion show. It was erev Rosh Hashanah at San Jose's Temple Emanu-El in the roaring 1920s.

Even later, during the Depression of the '30s, people flocked to Emanu-El, then known as Congregation Bickur Cholim, dressed to the nines.

"Everyone went out and bought new clothes for Rosh Hashanah," remembered Charles Atlas, 83. "When someone walked in we would all turn around. It was like a party — people would purposely arrive late so everyone would see them."

As Temple Emanu-El marks its 140th anniversary this year — making it the oldest synagogue between San Francisco and Los Angeles — Atlas, a descendent of one of the temple's founders, reflected on some of the changes the temple has undergone.

Synagogue attire, for instance, has become a lot more casual since the days when a young fifth-generation member attended services with his parents and grandparents.

This "dressing down," which Atlas said began in the aftermath of World War II, is one change he thinks is not for the better. Atlas still "dresses the part" when he attends services with a son who lives locally, two grandchildren and two immediate cousins, all of whom are members.

"I would never go to temple without wearing a suit and tie," he said. "I don't think it's appropriate."

Clothing aside, there have also been many other metamorphoses at Emanu-El.

In 1940, for instance, a fire destroyed the Bickur Cholim building on the northeast corner of Third and San Antonio streets. At that point the temple, originally dedicated in 1870, moved to its current site at University and Myrtle Street and changed its name to Emanu-El.

Today the synagogue serves not only the urban community but a membership throughout the growing suburban Silicon Valley area.

Yet as Atlas browses around the synagogue nowadays, he still recognizes faces from his childhood days at Bickur Cholim.

"In the old building I could have told you where they all sat," said Atlas. "We all had assigned seats."

As long as Atlas could remember his family had reserved and paid for the second row bench, because, according to his grandfather, "You couldn't stretch your feet out in the first." And if the Atlas family didn't show up, "then the whole row stayed empty."

His grandfather even upholstered their row with a cushion since the oak wood pew "was too hard to sit on for too long."

The custom of assigned seating, however, became a thing of the past when the temple moved into its new building and its membership began to grow.

Founded in 1861, at the start of the Civil War, Emanu-El began originally as a burial society for Jews who settled in the West.

"It's funny because we don't normally think of our people as settlers of the West, but obviously they were," said Linda Klein, the temple's executive director. "They first came together to solve the problem of burial and caring for the sick and continually added on members."

As the membership grew, the need for synagogue services arose. And as it grew even larger, members decided to stop importing San Francisco rabbis for events and become a full-fledged congregation.

Atlas' great-great-uncle on his mother's side was the first Bickur Cholim secretary, taking minutes at the meetings in books, which were recently recovered by Klein. She laughed as she read back the text of one of the large pages detailing the generous donations made to the society of $1 and $2.

While a $2 contribution might not keep the temple running now, it's part of the long history that makes Emanu-El what it is today, according to the synagogue's rabbi, Dana Magat. Some of that history, complete with archival photos, is chronicled in the synagogue's Web site at

"We are a totality of our experiences," he said. "There's always room to build upon our past."

Despite being "an old congregation," Magat said, there are "elements of this congregation that feel very new"

Although Magat has been Emanu-El's spiritual leader for only two of its 140 years, the congregation has "embraced my changes" and "treated me well," he said. It is not a congregation that's stuck in its ways, he added, noting that age also has some advantages.

"They've been through so many experiences that it makes my job a lot easier."

Atlas agreed that his fellow synagogue members "have certainly been through a lot — both good and bad — to get where we are today."

Atlas couldn't imagine what it would be like if he weren't there to "weather the storms" with them. Unlike other descendents of founders who eventually went on to form other synagogues in the San Jose area, Atlas has always remained loyal to Emanu-El.

"I'm very proud of the fact that my family has belonged here continuously for years," he said. "I've never belonged to any other temple. So to be a part of this one means a lot. I've known a lot of these people for so long that they are like my extended family."