Then and Now: Now Zen Center, then refuge for Jewish women

For 50 years, San Francisco Zen Center has been an international hub for Buddhist meditation and social action. Since 1969, the center has made its headquarters at 300 Page St. in Hayes Valley, inspiring rabbis including the late Alan Lew of Congregation Beth Sholom, and co-led from 1995 to 2000 by abbot Norman Fischer, author of the Jewish-Buddhist memoir “Jerusalem Moonlight.” The Bay Area has become a center for “JewBus” in part because of the presence of the Zen Center.

Zen Center residents sweep every morning before breakfast as part of their daily temple cleaning. photo/courtesy of san francisco zen center

It turns out that the Jewish “foundation” for the Zen Center is more than metaphorical. As the new exhibition “300 Page Street, A Place of Refuge” (opening Oct. 5 at that address) makes clear, the building began as a refuge for Jewish women. Designed by Julia Morgan and Dorothy Wormser in 1922, the edifice was built to provide expanded services to European immigrants needing shelter, community and ultimately job training.

Conceived by the Emanu-El Sisterhood for Personal Service (an arm of Congregation Emanu-El), which was founded in 1894, the center allowed the sisterhood to expand from providing services into residential living. Over several decades, their program evolved to take in predominantly German refugees in the 1930s and then, increasingly, non-Jewish neighborhood residents. In 1969, it was determined that the center no longer fulfilled its original philanthropic mission, and the building was sold to the Zen Center.

In another Zen Center/Congregation Emanu-El connection, the first home for center founder Suzuki Roshi was the old home for Congregation Ohabai Shalome, founded by a breakaway group from Emanu-El.

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.