A place of tradition, innovation: Temple Sinai sanctuary marks 100 years in downtown Oakland

A place of peace bathed in a golden glow, the domed sanctuary at Temple Sinai in downtown Oakland has been filled with sermons, prayers and songs for 100 years.

With rock music, gospel, dance, jazz and hip-hop at special Shabbat services, Sinai boasts a legacy of innovation. In 1986, former Cantor Bruce Benson wrote and recorded a jazz service with jazz saxophonist Kenny G, and recently, composer-in-residence Robert Schoen presented an original bossa nova Shabbat.

Sinai’s 9,800-square-foot sanctuary

But the Reform synagogue is also proud of its long history. Fred Isaac, the historian at Temple Sinai and author of “Jews in Oakland and Berkeley,” noted that Oakland has three Jewish congregations that are more than 100 years old. Temple Sinai, founded in 1875 as the First Hebrew Congregation of Oakland, is the oldest, with the oldest sanctuary.

“There is a spirituality transmitted over the generations here, a quiet to the place,” said Isaac, standing in the 9,800-square-foot sanctuary. “Nothing has been replaced and no attempt has been made to modernize it, make it hip. This sanctuary represents Temple Sinai and Judaism to a lot of our congregants, and we are all attached to it.”

So is the city of Oakland. Celebrating the synagogue’s centennial, the Oakland Heritage Alliance will lead a tour of the storied 800-seat sanctuary on March 2.

The sanctuary, the Beaux-Arts entrance and a large multipurpose hall are part of the original synagogue at 2808 Summit St., one block off Broadway at 28th Street. A new building, constructed for $15 million during renovations from 2008 to 2010, wraps around about half of the old structure. A block-long wall of small tiles made from Jerusalem stone is a focal point of the new, light-filled building, which also houses offices, a preschool, a library, classrooms and a chapel.

“This sanctuary has been a focal point for so many Jewish memories and moments in the East Bay,” executive director Paul Geduldig said. “This centennial year provides us with an opportunity to pause and reflect on all that we have accomplished and to consider our hopes and aspirations for the future.”

The renovated synagogue, completed in 2010

As part of a yearlong celebration, the congregation has scheduled concerts, lectures, dinners and themed Shabbat services. On March 14, Cantor Ilene Keys and the adult choir will reprise some of the highlights in “100 Years of Sinai in Song,” a sampling of musical worship styles.

“The acoustics in the sanctuary are wonderful, and there is a rich tradition of music here, music that is at a very high level and also eclectic,” Keys said. “That feeds everybody’s needs. You never know how something will touch someone spiritually.” Keys said the Oakland Symphony and the Oakland Chamber Chorus also have played in the sanctuary.

Music is not the only art form nurtured in Temple Sinai’s sanctuary. In the mid-1960s, the American Conservatory Theater sent its resident company to perform Archibald MacLeish’s play “J.B.,” a retelling of the story of Job. In December 1970, dancer and choreographer Anna Halprin and troupe presented a new work called “Kadosh,” which concluded with congregants joining troupe members in a dance up the aisle, out the door and around the corner.

That night of dance was Rabbi Emeritus Samuel Broude’s idea. “I was interested in using the performing arts to support our understanding of Judaism,” said Broude, who served the congregation from 1966 to 1989.

The centennial celebration of Temple Sinai’s sanctuary is due in no small part to Broude, who discouraged the congregation from moving to property purchased in the 1960s in the Oakland Hills.

The Beaux-Arts synagogue about 75 years ago photo/courtesy magnes museum

“I pushed to stay downtown, where we were very much a part of Oakland,” Broude said. “Plus, there was the sanctuary itself, which has so much warmth and majesty.” Architect G. Albert Lansburgh, who also built the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco and theaters on the East and West coasts, designed Temple Sinai. The synagogue serves about 975 families today.

Like his predecessor, the late Rabbi William Stern, Broude was a strong supporter of interfaith efforts. He also embraced liberal causes and was active in furthering social justice in Oakland. Rabbi Emeritus Steven Chester, who served from 1989 to 2011, followed the same path. 

­“Temple Sinai is in a city that’s very diverse, and in addition to the beautiful edifice in and of itself, philosophically we make a statement about being part of the city of Oakland,” Chester said. As part of th centennial celebration, Chester and Broude were honored Jan. 17 at a Social Action Shabbat.

“One of the major rules about building a synagogue is that you have to have windows, so what you pray and what you say doesn’t just remain in the synagogue, but goes out into the community in which you live,” Chester said. Sinai’s sanctuary, he added, has followed that tradition. “Then the building becomes secondary, and that is who and what a caring congregation is.”

“Temple Sinai is a place of both tradition and innovation, a place of beauty and holiness,” added Rabbi Andrew Straus, “and we have a sanctuary that has been rooted for 100 years.”

“100 Years of Sinai in Song,” 7:30 p.m. March 14, Temple Sinai, 2808 Summit St., Oakland. www.oaklandsinai.org

Oakland Heritage Alliance tour of Temple Sinai sanctuary, noon to 2 p.m. March 2. $25 public, $20 members. (510) 763-9218 or www.tinyurl.com/sinai-100

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.