Music Director Jonathan Dimmock plays the 3,500-pipe organ at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, June 10, 2024. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Music Director Jonathan Dimmock plays the 3,500-pipe organ at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, June 10, 2024. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

Sherith Israel’s historic pipes will offer majestic welcome to organist convention

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In order to repair the world, Congregation Sherith Israel first had to repair its mighty 3,500-pipe Murray Harris organ.

The Reform congregation in San Francisco has completed the first phase of a six-figure restoration, just in time to host the opening program of the annual American Guild of Organists convention. During the June 30 event, Assistant Rabbi George Altshuler will lead a tikkun olam-themed Ma’ariv service featuring an organ composition commissioned especially for the occasion.

The event is free and open to the public. It’s one of several services that will take place in local houses of worship during the conference, which draws hundreds of organists from around the world.

“We’re celebrating Jewish organ music, but another purpose of this service is to expose people to Jewish liturgy,” Altshuler said. “The organ still has a role to play in some forms of Jewish worship.”

The focus on tikkun olam is a “good encapsulation of what we as a synagogue and Reform Jews stand for,” he added. “As a frequently used buzzword and phrase, it can lose its meaning, but this idea of being called to fulfill our role in repairing the world is something quite beautiful and rooted in our tradition.”

Jonathan Dimmock, Sherith Israel’s music director, played a central role in bringing the conference to the congregation. He received special permission from Sir Karl Jenkins to transcribe “Tikkun Olam,” a movement from the acclaimed Welsh composer’s “One World” suite for choir and orchestra. Dimmock reset the piece for choir, organ, cello, violin and mezzo Karen Clark.

“Generations,” a newly commissioned song cycle that is also part of the June 30 program, was composed by Australian-born composer Melissa Dunphy, who now lives in Philadelphia. The libretto is by playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger, “who wrote three gorgeous tone poems and is Jewish, so understands the structure of the service,” Dunphy said.

The pipes at Congregation Sherith Israel are intricately painted, in keeping with the overall design of the domed sanctuary. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

Known as a choral composer, Dunphy spent several years as composer-in-residence with the San Francisco choir Volti. She composed the three-part “Generations” for soprano Rachel Policar and organist David Higgs. A former organist at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El, Higgs is a professor at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music and one of the world’s most esteemed concert organists.

Dunphy credits organist Carson Cooman, composer-in-residence at Harvard’s Memorial Church, with introducing her to the singular process of writing for such a unique instrument.

“Carson explained that organ writing is really a collaboration between me as the composer and the unknown performer deciding on the orchestration,” she said. “Even if I could notate for every stop, which I couldn’t, every organ is different. There’s no guarantee that the instrument on the other end would have all those bells and whistles. The end result can be incredibly different, depending on what instrument it’s played on.”

The renovation of Sherith Israel’s organ involves erecting scaffolding, removing collapsing pipes and sending them to Ohio for repair, according to Dimmock. 

“The re-do is a multi-month process,” he said. “We’ve completed phase 1 of that and will do phase 2 right after High Holidays this year.”

The congregation celebrates its organ on its website — with a link to the fundraising campaign to keep the pipes in fettle — and explains the presence of these mighty machines in North American Reform synagogues built in the early 20th century.

“Organs became part of the Reform musical tradition in 19th century Germany, leading to a flowering of Jewish musical composition,” the website says. “In 1904 Sherith Israel purchased the organ for $18,000 from the Murray M. Harris Co. of Los Angeles. Long considered one of the treasures of American organ building, it is still in perfect working order.”

While the organ once embodied the Reform movement’s assimilationist sensibility, the instrument’s role has evolved over time. 

“Historically the Reform movement is about meeting American culture where it is,” Altshuler said. “One hundred years later the organ is more about honoring tradition and the past and creating beautiful, moving music.”

One reason that piece of the past is so precious is that more than 40 organs were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. 

Sherith Israel’s instrument is one of only a handful that survived, even fewer of which are located in buildings still devoted to worship. (The 1888 Hook & Hastings organ inside the former  Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which has not operated as a church since 1992, is the largest unaltered pipe organ in the state.)

At Sherith Israel, Dimmock plays the organ during High Holiday services and every few weeks at Shabbat, “adding a sense of history and majesty to the service,” Altshuler said. 

Dimmock, who is the principal organist at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor and organist for the San Francisco Symphony, is “incredibly talented and really good at improvising during [the] silent Amidah, setting a mood for the moment,” Altshuler said.

Conference attendees who bring grandeur to services at their churches will soon get a chance to experience that majesty at Sherith Israel, too.

“Ma’ariv Evening Service & Concert”

7 p.m. Sunday, June 30. at Congregation Sherith Israel, 2266 California St., San Francisco. Free.

Andrew Gilbert
Andrew Gilbert

Los Angeles native Andrew Gilbert is a Berkeley-based freelance writer who covers jazz, roots and international music for publications including the Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, San Francisco Classical Voice and Berkeleyside.