Then and Now: Prohibition gave shuls license to pour freely

Seven years ago this week, Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley moved into its new home — the former Jay Vee liquor store on University Avenue. Although jokes were made about doing Kiddush over a case of Miller Lite, the shul leadership made no attempt to sell liquor as part of the synagogue’s fundraising strategy.

Rabbi Mayer Hirsch of S.F. Congregation Anshe Sfard with barrels of sacramental kosher wine during Prohibition photo/magnes collection of jewish art and life at the bancroft library, university of california, berkeley

Some 70 years before that — as the Prohibition era came to an end — the story might have been different.

During the years that alcohol was outlawed in this country, religious institutions were permitted to serve wine legally. Synagogues and churches reported a modest increase in attendance during the 1920s and early 1930s, with a few self-proclaimed rabbis creating instant congregations for the express purpose of procuring “sacramental wine.”

In “Cosmopolitans: A Social and Cultural History of the Jews of the San Francisco Bay Area,” historian Fred Rosenbaum reveals that some religious leaders, such as Rabbi B.M. Paper of Oakland’s Beth Jacob Congregation, supported themselves by selling wine to their congregations at a substantial profit. Nearby Temple Sinai, a Reform congregation, switched entirely over to grape juice to avoid even the suggestion of impropriety.

This column is provided to j. by Daniel Schifrin, writer-in-residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, where stories of local Jewish life are explored in “California Dreaming: Jewish Life in the Bay Area from the Gold Rush to the Present.”

Dan Schifrin
Dan Schifrin

Daniel Schifrin, a local teacher and writer, is writing a play about medieval Jewish Spain as a LABA Fellow at the JCC East Bay.