Thursday Temple Tour: From Gold Rush-era Goodness to Gender Equity, Community Is Key at Oakland’s Temple Sinai
Big-hearted social activists. Forward-thinking pioneers who banded together to create and nurture what would become one of the most influential religious organizations in and beyond the San Francisco Bay Area.
The 19th century immigrants from Germany, Hungary and Poland who founded Temple Sinai in Oakland, California nearly 150 years ago were hardworking, but compassionate doers. During the great Gold Rush of the late 1840s, they had made their way west to open shops which catered to the needs of the “forty-niners” laboring in America’s burgeoning gold mining industry.
Hats, boots, clothing, mining equipment. One sale, then another – and another. As their businesses grew, so did their civic engagement. Advocates for improved regional infrastructure, they pressed for railroad expansion, built schools and bettered working conditions for miners and, as America’s Civil War waxed and waned, they formed a host of fraternal organizations, such as the Hebrew Benevolent Society – Oakland’s first Jewish institution – created specifically to lift up the less successful members of their adopted community.
Planning for both their neighbors’ spiritual wellbeing in life and their caretaking after death, this society’s founders secured a Torah scroll and Shofar for worship during the early to mid-1860s and then, in 1865, purchased a two-acre section of Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery so that those who passed on would have a permanent, peaceful place of rest. Today, this cemetery is still active and known by its original name – the Home of Eternity Cemetery.
As the century wore on, society leaders realized that a more formal place of worship was needed and, in 1875, joined together to form the First Hebrew Congregation of Oakland. Three years later, the congregation’s first home opened at the corner of 14th and Webster. Built without separation between the seating for men and women – a departure from the traditional partitioning of Orthodox synagogues, the 500-seat structure was a testament to the reform-minded nature of its membership.
In 1881, congregants appointed their first Rabbi – Meyer Solomon Levy. During his 10-year tenure, he raised awareness about Jewish traditions, and succeeded in persuading local schools to adjust their respective schedules so that examinations and other events would not conflict with key dates on the Jewish calendar.
Destroyed by fire just four years later, the synagogue was rebuilt at 13th and Clay in Oakland – largely thanks to the temple’s women, who held a fair to raise the funds needed for their group’s continued operation. By 1892, temple leaders had recruited a new Rabbi – Marcus Friedlander. Among the worshippers here at this time were Gertrude Stine, Rabbi Judah Magnes, and Rae Frank – the first woman to preach from a synagogue pulpit.
Friedlander inched his congregants closer and closer to Reform Judaism, switching to a reform prayer book in 1896, creating a combined men’s and women’s choir, and by 1910, transitioning their membership into the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
The synagogue then relocated one final time – to its present day home on the corner of 28th and Webster (not far from the old Summit Medical Center that is now Alta Bates). The new temple, which was dedicated in September of 1914, is still easily identified by the following passage from Isaiah, which was inscribed over the temple’s front entrance:
My House shall be a House of Prayer for All Peoples.
Although Temple Sinai struggled to fund its operations, and replaced its spiritual leaders several times during the Depression and dark days of World War II, temple members persevered. Led by their new Rabbi, William Stern, they found renewed strength in his messages of anti-Semitism, redoubled their efforts to build bridges of interfaith understanding, and became a force for good in the community once again.
Rabbi Samuel Broude, who took up Stern’s mantle of leadership in the mid-1960s and served until his 1989 retirement, also instilled a similar passion for social justice, inspiring Temple Sinai congregants to join in local Civil Rights marches and protests against the Vietnam War.
Returning the synagogue to more traditional practices, Rabbi Steven Chester increased the use of Hebrew in worship and launched a Jewish preschool in the 1990s. Together, with Cantor Ilene Keys, he also helped build a flourishing music ministry.
That same decade, Temple Sinai congregants played an active role in helping survivors of the 1991 Oakland Hills fire recover from the inferno and rebuild their homes and lives. In 2014, congregants celebrated the 100th birthday of their synagogue’s sanctuary.
Today, Temple Sinai is helmed by two women – Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin and Cantor Ilene Keys, and its congregation continues to be a welcoming and inclusive force for good. A genuine sanctuary from the world, the atmosphere has been described as peaceful and soothing – a truly holy place which is making a difference not just for its own members, but through service to the community at large via such programs as:
- Caring Community (Kehilat Chesed): Arranging for meals and help with transportation for those dealing with major life changes (new baby, surgery, long-term illness, the death of a loved one);
- Employment Initiative: Bringing together members who have jobs to offer with those who are unemployed – whether they are members of this temple or not;
- Interfaith Education and Outreach;
- Literacy; and
- Social Groups (boomers and empty nesters, LGBT, singles, seniors, youth).
At its outset, to be a Temple Sinai congregant was to be a change maker with a conscience. That sentiment is still true today.