As an intern at Sinai Memorial Chapel in San Francisco, Jacob Isaacs created a digital map of historical Jewish sites around the city. (Photo/Courtesy Jacob Isaacs)
As an intern at Sinai Memorial Chapel in San Francisco, Jacob Isaacs created a digital map of historical Jewish sites around the city. (Photo/Courtesy Jacob Isaacs)

New digital map offers walking tours of San Francisco’s hidden Jewish history

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The tall, round-balconied building on Sutter Street is hardly noticeable, tucked away in a cluster of hospital and clinic sites. Passers-by would never know it’s a notable part of the Jewish history of San Francisco: a Jewish-funded health center designed by one of the most remarkable architects of the 20th century, the German Jewish expressionist Erich Mendelsohn.

“They see an interesting building, but they have no idea it was Maimonides Hospital,” said Sam Salkin, executive director of Sinai Memorial Chapel.

The nonprofit S.F. funeral home is opening up the story of Jewish life in the city with a new tool at that illuminates the rich history of San Francisco’s Jewish influence. Maimonides Hospital is just one stop on the “Map of Jewish San Francisco,” Sinai’s newly launched digital mapping project, which includes guided walking tours.

It may seem like a departure for the institution, but Susan Morris, board president and former head of the Western Jewish History Center, said it fits in perfectly with Sinai’s mission of connecting Jews to their past.

“That’s why it is there: It’s community,” she said. “It’s about letting people in our Jewish community know there’s been a Jewish presence in San Francisco since the Gold Rush.”

The main map collects Jewish sites across the city, from landmarks like Congregation Emanu-El to lesser-known bits of history, like Cable Car Clothiers, located at the original Montgomery Street location where founder Charlie Pivnick first opened it.

For ease of use, the sites have been broken down into four walking tours: Financial District to the Embarcadero, Civic Center to Presidio Heights, South of Market to the Financial District, and Presidio Terrace to Polk Gulch.

“You get step-by-step directions to learn about the sites included on the tour,” Salkin said.

The maps were created by Jacob Isaacs, a San Jose native who is currently a senior at Carleton College in Minnesota. He worked at Sinai over the summer as a Kohn intern, a program of Jewish Vocational Service that places young people with Jewish nonprofits.

Isaacs said that although he grew up in the Bay Area, he didn’t feel all that connected to California Jewish history and wanted to know more.

“I thought this was the perfect way to do that,” he said. “So I really reached for the opportunity.”

The job started with Isaacs being handed a “giant stack” of books. He got to work and started digging into the city’s history, talking to local historians and others. One story inevitably led to another.

“They’d say, ‘Well, have you considered this?’” Isaacs said.

He was thrilled to discover remnants of a Jewish past that were hiding in plain sight, like the story of French Jew Raphael Weill, who came to San Francisco in 1855.

French Jew Raphael Weill, founder of the White House department store in San Francisco (Photo/Courtesy California State Library)
French Jew Raphael Weill, founder of the White House department store in San Francisco (Photo/Courtesy California State Library)

“He was the owner of the White House department store,” Isaacs said. “The building is still there in downtown.”

“What Jacob provided is a window into … an invisible history,” said Victoria Fisch, president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Sacramento. “I hope people take advantage of it.” Isaacs spent a couple of days talking with Fisch and her partner, Jeremy Frankel, head of the S.F. Jewish Genealogical Society, as part of his research.

Frankel said that the information on Jewish San Francisco is out there, but it’s dispersed in various archives around the area. Historians know where to look, but the general public doesn’t.

Morris concurred. “What Jacob has done is really make this accessible to everyone,” she said.

The historical maps are a new path for Sinai, which has a long history of providing funeral assistance to Jewish families. It was founded in 1902 and today owns and manages several cemeteries in the Bay Area.

Part of the idea behind the map is to open up local history for visitors. Salkin said it’s common for families who are in town for a funeral to seek interesting Jewish things to do or see. But the map is also meant for locals.

“So many Jewish individuals living in the Bay Area are not connected to a synagogue, have not lived in the Bay Area for very long,” Morris said. “Their roots may be elsewhere.”

Salkin said the maps are just a start. He’s hoping people will get in touch to amend or add information, and there are plans to expand the project to “ultimately go as far south as Monterey and Carmel and as far north as Oregon,” he said.

“This is a living document. If we didn’t get it all right, we want to correct it,” Salkin said.

Isaacs plans to keep working on the maps over his winter break, expanding them to the East Bay.

“It is also by no means comprehensive, and I’d really love for it to be a constantly expanding document,” he said. “Because history is always being rewritten.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.