Gail Simon remembers these chairs from her childhood at the original Webster Street location of Keneseth Israel. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)
Gail Simon remembers these chairs from her childhood at the original Webster Street location of Keneseth Israel. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

Is your living room the next stop for these historic S.F. synagogue chairs?

The small sanctuary of Keneseth Israel, San Francisco’s oldest Orthodox synagogue, is lined with eye-catching, theater-style chairs. They have curved wooden backs and red velour seats, with metalwork Stars of David on some.

After being in use for the better part of a century, the seats still pop up and fold down (for the most part). Their history began at the Orpheum Theatre in the 1920s — and the next stop on their journey could be your living room.

To raise money for small repairs and a general sprucing up of its space, Keneseth Israel is putting the chairs up for sale. Attached at the armrests, they are being sold in sets of two, three and five seats. Each of the eight sets, regardless of how many chairs it contains, is available for $500. (This reporter, a synagogue and movie-theater chair enthusiast, has already reserved a set of three.)

Keneseth Israel was founded in 1902 out of the merger of two older congregations. It arrived at its current, semi-underground digs in 1999. Though the chronology is a little unclear, the chairs have been around for much of the congregation’s history.

The chairs, which feature metal work with Stars of David on what were once the aisle ends, are in good working condition. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)
The chairs, which feature metal work with Stars of David on what were once the aisle ends, are in good working condition. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

According to a 2004 J. article that quoted the since deceased Henry Falkenberg, the longtime unofficial leader of Keneseth Israel, the chairs originally came from the Orpheum Theatre, which opened in 1926 on Market Street and was owned by a member of Congregation Beth Israel. In this version of events, the chairs may have been at Beth Israel’s old building on Geary Boulevard at some point. And it’s unclear at what point they gained the Star of David metalwork — or was that original to the Orpheum’s chairs?


FROM THE ARCHIVES, 2004: Underground shul: Downtown S.F.’s last Orthodox synagogue welcomes tourists with a nice meal and ‘slow davening’


Whatever their story, the chairs are in good condition and are unexpectedly comfortable. But Keneseth Israel — which these days is really a program of Chabad of San Francisco — needs a little more flexibility in its heimish but cramped quarters. So the old chairs have to go, in order to make room for, yes, movable folding chairs.

But recognizing the history of the chairs, Chabad of San Francisco Rabbi Yosef Langer and his assistant, Brian Webster, felt they needed to find appropriate homes for them. And if Keneseth Israel can make a little money for repairs and renovations at the same time, why not?

“This space is a spiritual oasis in the middle of downtown and Lower Nob Hill, on the edge of the Tenderloin,” Gail Simon says of the semi-subterranean sanctuary at 873 Sutter St. between Leavenworth and Jones streets. “I come in early on a Friday night, and by 8 or 9, all the families, all their kids are here, dancing and eating. We need to take this tiny little jewel box and turn it into something warm and lovely. So the money from the chairs would be to benefit the space and brighten it up some.”

The current location of Keneseth Israel on Sutter Street in San Francisco. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)
The current location of Keneseth Israel on Sutter Street in San Francisco. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

Simon has been attending Keneseth Israel services for years, and has fond memories of one of the congregation’s earlier, much grander locations on Webster Street.

“I was lucky enough to attend as a child at 10 years old, when we came to California and all the Jewish people lived in the Fillmore,” she says. “If you look at the men’s prayer room [in the current location], it’s exactly the way it was when I was a little girl — and I’m 77 — with the same chairs.”

And where would she like to see those chairs end up? As long as they go somewhere they’re appreciated, that’ll be fine, says Simon.

Adds Rabbi Langer: “I just want to see people [in these chairs] relaxing in front of their TV. They’re very relaxing.”

Or maybe a good spot would be in the waiting room of Dianne Feinstein’s San Francisco office, Webster jokes, “or in the lounge at the top of Salesforce Tower.”

To inquire about purchasing a set of chairs, contact Rabbi Moshe Langer at [email protected].

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

David A.M. Wilensky is interim associate editor of J. He previously served as assistant editor and digital editor, and is a member of the board of the American Jewish Press Association. He can be reached at [email protected].