Temple Sinai in Oakland in 1914
Temple Sinai in Oakland in 1914

J. archives bring humanity of Bay Area Jewish history to life

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The digitization of the J. archives was made possible by funding from the Lisa and Douglas Goldman Fund and Fred Levin, The Shenson Foundation, in memory of the Shenson and Levin Families.

My great-grandfather Rabbi Myer Sol Levy arrived in the Bay Area from London in about 1870, along with my great-grandmother Annie. I’ve always been interested in his life as a public figure and rabbi because I entered the same field almost 100 years later. So when J. opened up its archives, I was curious to see whether I would learn something new about him.

I certainly did. Providing a rich picture of my great-grandfather’s community work and activities that brought his humanity to life, the archives truly have been a gift.

Myer Sol Levy served as the first rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in San Jose. After about 10 years, he was wooed by Temple Sinai in Oakland to become its first rabbi.

In 1925, the notable Rabbi Rudolf Coffee wrote in an article on “Fifty Years of Judaism in Oakland”:

“On August 15, 1878, the first synagogue was dedicated in our city on Fourteenth street, between Franklin and Webster. …

“Two years later the first rabbi was called, Myer S. Levy, then located at San Jose, and his zeal and enthusiasm opened a new chapter in the congregation’s life. A man of fine physique and strong personality, a gifted pedagogue and Chazan of ability, a brilliant orator, and possessed of tireless energy, the young rabbi rallied the Jews of the east bay into a splendid whole.”

In 1891, Levy left Oakland for Congregation Beth Israel in San Francisco, where he served for about 25 years.

In July 1897, an article about the dedication of a Sefer Torah at Congregation Beth Menachim Streisand on Minna Street in San Francisco mentioned that Levy gave a speech as part of “services of an interesting and impressive character.” (I’ve never even heard of this synagogue!)

Rabbi Doug Kahn (left) and his ancestor Rabbi Meyer Sol Levy
Rabbi Doug Kahn (left) and his ancestor Rabbi Myer Sol Levy

In 1910, Rabbi Martin Meyer of Temple Emanu-El paid tribute to Levy on the occasion of Beth Israel’s jubilee celebration: “The importance of Beth Israel locally is largely due to the place which its rabbi, the Rev. Myer S. Levy, has made for it.

Its leader now for twenty years, he has worked indefatigably, heroically, to make into a lasting and telling congregation what was when he took hold but the shadow of a kehillah. … His personality has welded the most varied and heterogeneous elements into a splendid and vital community.”

Levy’s ties with the East Bay continued. In October 1912, in an update on happenings in Oakland, I found the following: “Pythian Hall, Twelfth and Alice streets, was filled with enthusiastic Zionists last Tuesday night when the Oakland Zionistic Society held its initial meeting. Rabbi M.S. Levy of San Francisco delivered a stirring address on ‘Modern Zionism.’”

I had no idea that 15 years after the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, San Francisco had a Zionist organization and that Levy would be part of it. I knew he had visited Ottoman-ruled Palestine, as I have a remarkable collection of glass slides from the trip depicting Jerusalem, the Galilee, orange groves and more. But I was thrilled to learn that he was a Zionist activist supporting the right of the Jewish people to return to their historic homeland.

In another 1912 article, I read a tantalizing reference that “the mature Rev. Myer Levy, who is an eloquent preacher, and has a heart that feels for suffering humanity, was not allowed to enter Russia by rail” when he sought to learn about the fate of Russian Jews. Had he sought to bring messages of solidarity in the aftermath of pogroms? This was another echo of the past that resonated; in 1971, 59 years after that mention, I made my first trip to meet with Russian Jewish refuseniks.

I caught one last glimpse through an article that Levy’s daughter, my grandmother, Miriam Kahn, wrote in 1936 on the 20th anniversary of his death. She clearly revered her father and his love of humanity:

“Understanding and pitying human weaknesses and frailties, he sought to help the underprivileged, the helpless, the forlorn, and discouraged.

“In 1892 he organized the first Jewish agency in prison reform. … From the amount thus collected, a Jewish prisoner on leaving San Quentin went immediately to the home of Rabbi Levy, where his prison suit was exchanged for a new one, with the addition of hat, shoes, underwear, and other necessary apparel. Ten dollars in cash and a ticket to any destination was given, and many of these unfortunate persons became self-reliant and in new surroundings, respected citizens.

“At all hours of the day and night he was called — to the city prison, emergency hospital, to the sick or dying, many times these calls coming from total strangers. Never was one unanswered. When Rumania suffered pogroms, many refugees fled that country and came to the United States. Tired, hungry, worn with suffering, they arrived and went directly from the ferry to the home of Rabbi Levy.

“Rich or poor, of high or low estate, each person was to him an individual deserving consideration, love and spiritual guidance.”

Reading these articles gave me a much fuller picture of the rabbi and the man who was my great-grandfather. They also filled me with an enormous sense of pride and profound gratitude that J. undertook the massive project of digitizing the archives.

Doug Kahn
Rabbi Doug Kahn

Rabbi Doug Kahn is executive director emeritus of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council. The views expressed are his own.