Walls of fame

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

No matter what, it never hurts to find a Picasso in the attic.

Congregation Sherith Israel has an undoubtedly tough row to hoe in coming up with the estimated $20 million it needs for a massive retrofit. Yet synagogue administrators say the recent revelation that much of the synagogue’s decor was crafted by prominent local artists can only help.

A Sunday lecture on the San Francisco synagogue’s hidden trove of artwork drew more than 600, according to Nancy Drapin, Sherith Israel’s executive director. Hundreds of those curious folks had never before set foot in the synagogue, or maybe any synagogue.

And, yes, these potential new donors were informed of Sherith Israel’s plight.

“There were plenty of brochures and the rabbi spoke at the program,” assured Drapin. “We have essentially extended our support base.”

Added Rabbi Larry Raphael, “This will help get the word out.”

Erected before the era of fiscal responsibility, Sherith Israel’s awe-inspiring dome has presided over California Street for just over a century. But painstaking research through boxes of records untouched since the McKinley administration recently revealed that the synagogue’s interior has every bit the pedigree of its magnificent exterior.

Apart from the ubiquitous dome, Sherith Israel’s conversation piece has long been its “Moses window,” a stained glass masterpiece depicting the delivery of the Ten Commandments. While synagogue images of Moses descending from the mountain are not unique, this isn’t your garden-variety peak. It’s obviously Half Dome, homage to Sherith Israel’s California roots. And the adorable little girl in the corner is none other than legendary former Rabbi Jacob Nieto’s little daughter.

It turns out the man responsible for the design, and a handful of other windows, is Emile Pissis. He had an “in” when it came to landing the stained glass job. His brother, Albert, was Sherith Israel’s architect.

Meanwhile, many of the frescoes adorning the temple’s interior were painted by Attilio Moretti, who carved out a good living decorating the altars of local houses of worship.

Many of the lasting works of both artists perished in the great 1906 earthquake (as did the records of their creations). It was only after synagogue volunteers rummaged through temple records going back 154 years that Pissis and Moretti’s identities were confirmed.

With Sherith Israel’s newly increased status as a historical building, Drapin noted that there are still no plans afoot to landmark the structure, nor can landmark status be imposed unwillingly on the congregation.

There are pros and cons: Landmarking the building would entitle Sherith Israel to some government funding toward its retrofitting, but it would severely tie the congregation’s hands regarding altering or selling the property.

Not that any of Pissis’ or Moretti’s work has been altered. Drapin notes that the windows, frescoes and other treasures “have never been touched.”

On Aug. 15, as mandated by the city’s Unreinforced Masonry Building codes, Sherith Israel must close its doors, though an appeal may extend that deadline to February of next year. The synagogue’s main building will sit, unused, until the necessary funds are amassed to begin the retrofitting process. That construction job will take at least 15 to 18 months, during which time the sanctuary will be unusable. Shabbat services will be held at adjoining Newman Hall, with High Holy Day events at a nearby church.

But the synagogue’s newfound treasures aren’t going anywhere.

“They’ll stay in the building and we’ll have them protected,” said Drapin.

“These pieces are extremely important.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.