Groundbreaking on the current home of Congregation B'nai Israel in Sacramento, which was dedicated in 1954. (Photo/File)
Groundbreaking on the current home of Congregation B'nai Israel in Sacramento, which was dedicated in 1954. (Photo/File)

Here’s to the next 175 years of Jewish life in California

As we celebrate the High Holidays, a time of profound reflection and renewal, it’s important to recognize an important communal milestone for the California Jewish community.

This upcoming year marks the 175th anniversary of Jewish Life in California. The first recorded expression of Jewish communal life took place in 1849, when a group of gold-rush businessmen gathered for a minyan in a Sacramento private home. The community grew and founded what became Congregation B’nai Israel, which is considered the first congregationally owned synagogue west of the Mississippi.

In the century and three quarters since then, Jewish life has expanded and touched all parts of the state.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur provide us with a meaningful opportunity to reflect on the year that has passed and look forward to the challenges that lie ahead. Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, mental health has become a key issue around the country and has hit young people especially hard. Setting aside clinical conditions — which should be treated with the guidance of an appropriate professional — one factor which I believe is a major contributor to this is that many people feel a sense of hopelessness at the state of the world.

The world is a messy place. However, the High Holidays contain a message that can provide hope to those struggling with a crisis of meaning and purpose.

On Rosh Hashanah, we are judged equally before God. No one is better or worse than anyone else. God judges us by our own individual merits, and we have the potential to change our decree via our thoughts, prayers and actions. Regardless of whatever happened in the past, we can change our future and even influence God to change our decree for the coming year. This lesson — that each of us matters and has the power to change the world for the better — serves as a profound reminder that we should not give up hope that the world can improve and that the year ahead will be sweet.

This High Holiday season, we pay gratitude to our predecessors who laid the foundation for Jewish life over a century ago. We also look ahead to the work that lies ahead to continue expanding Jewish life in our great state.

Since the first Chabad house opened in Sacramento in 1994, 13 additional Chabad houses have opened in areas such as Chico, Stockton, Vacaville and Nevada County, serving the needs of the local Jewish communities. Our most recent center, Chabad of Downtown Sacramento, opened its doors last year in the heart of the city, blocks away from the original site where Jewish life began 175 years ago. It is a testament to the vision of renewal and the rekindling of Jewish life in the city.

On Yom Kippur, we have an opportunity for reflection and contemplation. Through the blowing of the shofar, we connect with the sound that has resonated with our ancestors and inspires us today. This holy time of year is not only a time for personal introspection, but also a moment to consider our responsibility to help those in the community who are experiencing mental health challenges.

Every mitzvah we do brings more sparks of light into the world, making it a kinder and more welcoming place. Together, we will continue to strengthen the bonds that have fostered a vibrant Jewish life in California for the past 175 years and will allow it to flourish for another 175.

Rabbi Mendy Cohen
Rabbi Mendy Cohen

Rabbi Mendy Cohen leads Chabad of Sacramento, which he co-founded in 1994.