illustration of the front of a beige building with an entrance on the right
Architectural rendering of Congregation Chevra Thilim’s planned new facade on 25th Avenue in San Francisco. (Photo/Courtesy Geddes Ulinskas Architects)

Renovation of historic S.F. synagogue slowed but not halted

“We thought maybe we’d have it ready before High Holidays,” Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi said about the renovation of his San Francisco synagogue, Congregation Chevra Thilim.

The project, launched a year ago, was delayed for a few months at the onset of the pandemic. But work has started again, and Zarchi now feels confident that it will be finished in 2021.

Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi
Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi

When the project is completed, at an anticipated cost of $3 million to $4 million, the main sanctuary of the Orthodox synagogue in the Richmond District will have had a thorough face-lift, including what Zarchi calls “a very grand set of skylights.” He is also excited to carve out a new library and beit midrash (house of study).

A new facade featuring Jerusalem stone will be added on 25th Avenue, including a new main entrance where the street is less sloped (and therefore more user-friendly for people with mobility issues). Also in the interest of increased accessibility, the building will for the first time have an elevator to the second floor.

Though the current work began last year, it’s really the second phase of a complete reworking of the facility that began “about seven years ago,” said Zarchi, who is in his 22nd year at the 128-year-old shul with 150 to 200 member-units.

facade of a beige building with art deco lines, adorned with six-pointed stars and the ten commandments tablets
Congregation Chevra Thilim’s pre-renovation facade was completed in the 1940s. (Photo/Google Maps)

“The first phase was almost everything besides the actual sanctuary. It was an old facility with a lot of deferred maintenance,” he said.

In that first phase, the social hall, kitchen, bathrooms, offices and classrooms were overhauled.

Both phases were funded entirely by donations from the Chevra Thilim community.

Chevra Thilim, located in two downtown locations in the years after its 1892 founding, moved to South of Market after the 1906 earthquake and fire. The current location, two blocks from Golden Gate Park, was purchased piecemeal starting in 1932 and built in stages throughout that decade.

Architect's rendering of the planned renovation of the sanctuary of Congregation Chevra Thilim. (Photo/Courtesy Geddes Ulinskas)
Architect’s rendering of the planned renovation of the sanctuary of Congregation Chevra Thilim. (Photo/Courtesy Geddes Ulinskas)

“In its present form, it was dedicated in the early ’40s,” said Zarchi. “Since then, I think nothing has been done.”

Though the look of the building will have changed significantly when the work is done, steps are being taken to preserve some historic elements. Existing stained glass, for example, will be removed and reincorporated elsewhere.

And then there’s the mural. “Everybody wants to know about the mural,” Zarchi said.

Above the ark, spanning the full width of the bimah, the Chevra Thilim sanctuary sports a dramatic painting of a green sky filled with rolling clouds, dramatic mountains and rays of heavenly light that shine down on the two tablets of the Ten Commandments.

The mural above the bimah at Congregation Chevra Thilim. (Photo/file)
The mural above the bimah at Congregation Chevra Thilim. (Photo/file)

“We did a lot of research to find out the history of the mural and where it came from,” he said. But that research turned up little to nothing; the year it was painted and the name of the artist remain unknown.

“It always got different reactions — some people loved it, some hated it,” Zarchi said. Either way, it’s coming down. That wall of the sanctuary is being moved and there’s no way to save the mural. But if you’re in the “love it” camp, don’t fear. It has been professionally photographed so that an image can be displayed elsewhere in the building.

Zarchi credits his wife, Chani, with keeping costs under control and the project moving forward. He came to Chevra Thilim in 1998 and married her two years later.

“I didn’t think I would be here this long,” the rabbi said. “Looking back, my whole rabbinic career has been in San Francisco, and we wanted to build something for the next 100 years, for the next generation.”

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is director of news product at J. He previously served as assistant editor and digital editor. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @davidamwilensky