(From left) Rabbi Jonathan Singer, Rabbi Beth Singer, Ellen Kaye Fleishhacker and David Goldman do the ceremonial groundbreaking with gleaming shovels and a box of dirt. (Photo/Jordan Greene)
(From left) Rabbi Jonathan Singer, Rabbi Beth Singer, Ellen Kaye Fleishhacker and David Goldman do the ceremonial groundbreaking with gleaming shovels and a box of dirt. (Photo/Jordan Greene)

Emanu-El breaks ground on $91 million remodel of iconic building

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On a history-making day filled with joy, more than 200 people gathered at Congregation Emanu-El on June 4 for the groundbreaking of the San Francisco synagogue’s $91 million remodel and retrofit.

The celebration featured live music, remarks from community members and the shoveling of dirt using silver-plated shovels engraved with “Emanu-El Next groundbreaking celebration.”

David Goldman, Emanu-El’s executive director, called the event a joyous one not just for members and staff, but also for the broader community.

“We’ve been incredibly touched by the numbers of folks from outside our temple that are coming — from the interfaith community, from different areas of politics, from different nonprofits that we work with,” he said before the ceremony. “It’s a rare opportunity to celebrate the past, the present and the future.”

Emanu-El was established in 1850 when Jews came to San Francisco during the Gold Rush. The location at the corner of Lake Street and Arguello Boulevard was dedicated in 1926 and is the third home of the congregation.

Architectural rendering of the renovated Emanu-El. (Rendering/Mark Cavagnero Associates Architects, courtesy of Equity Community Builders)
Architectural rendering of the renovated Emanu-El. (Rendering/Mark Cavagnero Associates Architects, courtesy of Equity Community Builders)

Among the speakers at the ceremony was state Sen. Scott Wiener, who represents San Francisco and parts of San Mateo County. Wiener mentioned how being at the event was particularly touching for him because he grew up in a small town in New Jersey that had no synagogue; rather, his family and a few other Jewish families in the area established their own congregation and held services at a Lutheran church.

Wiener also took the opportunity to speak about how the remodeling project sheds a positive light on the Jewish community.

After the event, in an interview for this article, Wiener elaborated. “Synagogues are a place of community, a place of refuge, a place of support for Jews around the world, and when you arrive somewhere, you know you can go to a synagogue and find community,” he said. “With all the hate being directed at Jews in the news, having strong institutions — particularly, strong synagogues — that makes all the difference in the world.”

Among the children and teens participating in the event was Hannah Coleman, 15, who volunteered as a greeter. She has been involved with Emanu-El since she was in third grade.

“I feel like this event is very bittersweet because the temple we’ve had now has been standing for so long, and now they’re bringing in a new version,” she said. “Although we’re going to miss it a lot and I’m really sad to see it go, I know it’s going to be a new chapter full of new memories and more happiness. It’s going to be a lot better for everybody.”

The shovels used to break dirt at the event. (Photo/Jordan Greene)
Specially engraved shovels for the occasion. (Photo/Jordan Greene)

The Reform congregation’s plans were approved by the city’s planning commission in January. The renovation and retrofit — a project with an estimated completion date in 2025 — will include the addition of new classrooms, offices and social spaces (including a play area for children on the roof that will afford sweeping views of the city), and the main entrance will be made more accessible and secure. Only the iconic domed sanctuary won’t undergo significant changes.

To end the groundbreaking event, a group of four teens took the stage alongside Cantor Marsha Atttie to sing “L’dor V’dor,” which means from generation to generation and is typically understood to mean the handing down of cultural values, traditions and history to the next generation.

Michael Pappas, the executive director of the San Francisco Interfaith Council, attended the event and remarked afterward that he couldn’t help but be proud as he watched the community gather.

“I was smiling in my heart,” Pappas said. “It was just a day of joy. It was contagious and the community shared their joy with all of us. I felt like it was a historic moment and one that is going to live in memory for not only the people that are here today but for our greater community.”

He said Emanu-El is an anchor institution in the Jewish community and among the 800 faith communities in San Francisco.

During the construction, Pappas said he will work with Goldman and the rest of the staff to provide Emanu-El with alternative spaces should the congregation need them.

Goldman said the plan is for the synagogue to be as open and active during renovation, adding that the construction will allow them to be creative and try out new things.

“I’m excited for the community to be excited,” he said. “These projects are so intangible, in some ways, until those shovels hit the ground — and then you get that feeling that like ‘hey this is real.’”

Jordan Greene

Jordan Greene is a freelance reporter.