Looking Back, Looking Around, Looking Ahead

by Pat Launer September 28, 2011



It was a small item in the Weekly Gleaner, San Francisco’s Jewish newspaper.

June 20, 1861. “A meeting was held by us, the few Israelites residing at the above place (San Diego)… the object … to form ourselves into a congregation.”

And with that public announcement, Congregation Beth Israel was born (initially an Orthodox congregation, under the name of Adath Yeshurun). Now, 150 years later, the temple is the largest congregation south of Los Angeles, and the oldest in Southern California.

But this anniversary, at this time, almost didn’t happen.

In 1994, Rabbi Jonathan Stein became the congregation’s senior rabbi. And his plans to celebrate the history of CBI piqued the interest of Stan Schwartz, president of the Jewish Historical Society of San Diego (from 1994 to the present). He had information from the editors of the Western States Jewish History Quarterly that the congregation didn’t begin in 1876, as originally thought, but much earlier, in 1861, and he brought forth the article in the Weekly Gleaner.

“This made it the oldest congregation in Southern California,” Schwartz says proudly. “Older than the Wilshire Boulevard Temple by one year!”

So the 135th birthday was celebrated in 1996, and the 150th anniversary this year, with the contemplative and historical theme “A Time to Remember, a Time to Dream.”

It’s been a long and winding road, which Schwartz has assiduously documented (his work is available at http://www.cbisd.org/about/history-of-cbi; for the full text, click on ‘A Brief History of Beth Israel’ in the first paragraph).

“The early history of Congregation Beth Israel is really the history of Jewish life in San Diego,” it begins. “Some of the early pioneers who came to San Diego in the 1850s, who worshipped together first informally, then formed a congregation, were the same people who became the first leaders of the congregation we know today.”

One of those early congregants was Marcus Schiller, who came to San Diego in 1856, wrote the letter to the Weekly Gleaner in 1861, and remained in a leadership role for more than 40 years.

In the early days, there was no rabbi; congregants met at private residences in Old Town, which was then the center of San Diego. But there have been many influential leaders and many rabbis since, each contributing to the rich, colorful history of CBI.


A Few Historical Highlights

Here are some tidbits from Stan Schwartz’s detailed history of CBI:

•Congregation Beth Israel was established before there was a public school, library or bank in San Diego.

•The Congregation’s founders were pioneers who were instrumental in creating Balboa Park and many other seminal San Diego institutions.

•The first Jewish wedding was celebrated in 1853, with Louis Rose, another prominent founder and leader, acting as lay rabbi.

•By 1870, the San Diego Union was in circulation and began reporting on the observance of the High Holy Days by San Diego’s Jewish community. As that community continued to grow, Schiller and his colleagues (Charles Wolfsheimer, Simon Levi and Abraham Blochman) called a meeting to begin the process of reorganizing into a Reform congregation and building a synagogue. The 10 original members from 1861 had expanded to 40 by 1886-7, when Marcus Schiller became the first president of Congregation Beth Israel and a religious school was started.

•The first permanent rabbi, Samuel Freuder, was named in 1888, but he only remained for a year.

•Construction of the synagogue at Second Avenue and Beech Street was begun in 1889, and by Rosh Hashanah of that year, the first service was conducted at the Beech Street Temple. One of the earliest synagogues built in California, and one of the two oldest existing synagogue structures in California, it now stands as a historic monument in Heritage Park in Old Town.

•Rabbis came and went (this was to become a recurrent theme for CBI), but customs and ceremonies continued, thanks to the longevity and continuity of the founders. Membership numbers waxed and waned, depending on the economy.

•The first confirmation took place in 1899.

•During the economic downturn of 1893-1904, the Congregation rented the Beech Street Temple to several Christian congregations.

•In 1909, membership dues were $1-2 a month.

•Rabbi Emil Ellinger performed a mixed marriage between a Jewish congregant and a Catholic in 1911. This outraged some members, and the rabbi’s contract was terminated.

•The Beth Israel Sisterhood was formed in 1912, and a year later, they organized the first Congregational Seder. The Temple Brotherhood began a decade after but was terminated during the war and restarted in 1946.

•The congregation had outgrown the Beech Street Temple by 1923, and a property at the northwest corner of Third Avenue and Laurel Street was purchased for $11,000. The property at Second Avenue and Beech Street was sold for $20,000. The new temple, designed in the Moorish style with a domed sanctuary and adjoining Temple Center, was dedicated in 1926.

•The Depression years were tough on everyone, but CBI pressed onward, buoyed by a brief visit from Albert Einstein in 1931.

•In the 1940s, a perilous time for Jews worldwide, the temple enlarged its interfaith program by inviting children and youth groups from churches to be addressed by the rabbi. The Institute of Jewish Studies, with sponsorship from all three local synagogues, offered adult classes. Religious school enrollment and staff grew considerably.

•Membership reached 600 families by the late 1950s, and many new groups and clubs were formed. The temple gained community recognition with the broadcast of Friday night services by Station KCBQ, which included the sermons of Rabbi Morton J. Cohn.

•In 1960, 68 members, seeking a smaller, more intimate congregation, left to form Temple Solel, eventually purchasing land in Old Town on the site where old Temple Beth Israel sits today. Growth still continued at CBI, with the expansion of internal committees and outreach activities.

•CBI’s High Holy Days services were conducted at the Civic Theatre for the first time in 1965.

•In 1967, Beth Israel and Temple Solel merged.

•The congregation repurchased its first building on Second Avenue and Beech Street in 1978 and donated it to San Diego County.

•Lenore Bohm, the first female rabbi in San Diego, was hired as assistant rabbi in 1982.

•The acclaimed Children’s Theater program, SHOW BIS (Beth Israel Students) began in 1987.

•In 1989, the original, fully restored Temple Beth Israel (from Second Avenue and Beech Street) was rededicated in Old Town’s Heritage Park, in honor of its 100th anniversary.

•Also in 1989, CBI’s High Holy Days services were televised, and two years later, so was the Passover Seder.

•In 1993, the congregation purchased a 3.5-acre site for the new temple in the Golden Triangle area of La Jolla. In 2000, ground was broken on the new complex, which comprises three buildings totaling 65,000 square feet.

•In 1997, CBI adopted a gender-sensitive prayer book for Shabbat, and two years later, for the High Holy Days.

•Because of its historic and cultural significance, in 2000, the Third Avenue and Laurel Street property became eligible for the National Register of Historic Places and the California State Register of Historic Resources.

•In 2001, the final worship service was conducted at the Third Avenue and Laurel Street property, which was sold for $4,000,000 and now houses a Conservative congregation, Ohr Shalom.

•The new sanctuary was dedicated in 2001. With the completion of this facility, CBI became one of the only congregations in the American West to have three synagogues still in use.

•In 2006, the board of directors decided to close the day school, which had opened in 1981. An independent day school, Kadima, became a tenant of CBI, but only operated for one year, ending in 2007.


That, more or less, brings us up to the present, thanks to the diligent work of Stan Schwartz, who’s been a CBI member since 1995. “But after I did the history,” he says, “sometimes I say I’ve been a member since 1861!”

Now he’s the archivist for the Congregation and along with his wife, Laurel, helped mount the exhibition, “Beth Israel in Three Centuries,” which has been in the temple lobby since 2005. He will also participate in a panel discussion about CBI’s early history as part of the Three-Temple Tour (Oct. 23; see “A Sampling of 150th Anniversary Activities”).

Schwartz, who runs a Jewish antiquarian book business, Schwartz Judaica, isn’t the only one with a long memory and long-time membership. Fred Weitzen and Dr. Bob Epsten have been members of CBI for 60 years. Each served as temple president.


Long-time Members

Weitzen, age 82, a former court reporter like his father, grew up at CBI; his parents became members in 1920. Young Weitzen was confirmed there, and in 1946, at age 17, he became the first president of the congregation’s first youth group, the Temple Youth League. He served on the board for 10 years and was president from 1973-74. (“At 45,” he says, “the youngest president up to that time, and maybe still!”). During his term, he was selected by the National Conference of Christians and Jews as the Outstanding Jewish Leader of San Diego.

Weitzen was there during a period of rabbinical upheaval (“We set the record for turnover. I think it’s the water!,” he jokes). Still, he says, what has made CBI endure through a century and a half is “the people. They always come forward to help out. This is my congregation. I owe it my loyalty. It’s like a marriage, ‘through good times and bad.’”

At 86, Dr. Epsten’s history with CBI goes back even further. His maternal grandfather, Henry Weinberger, was also temple president, in the 1930s. His mother, Eleanor Epsten, was head of the Junior Charity League. Epsten was confirmed at CBI, as were his children.

“There’s a picture of my confirmation class in the temple lobby,” he reports, “from the 1940s.” His most active years, in the 1950s-60s (he was president from 1962-63), were periods of “tremendous turmoil” for the congregation. His comment on the “cascade of rabbis”: “They were just the wrong rabbi for the wrong congregation.” In his view, the situation has settled down now.

“The temple is kind of home to me,” says Epsten, a retired cardiologist who says he’s the oldest past president. “I think the difficult years are past. If the economics pick up, all will be well. This rabbi is bright and motivated and a very good administrator. I think things will calm down and move forward.”

Which brings us to The Man with a Plan, the rabbi who will shepherd the congregation through the celebrational year and hopefully an extended period of calm and stability.


The Resolute Rabbi, Intent on Longevity

Rabbi Michael Berk became senior rabbi in 2007 after serving as regional director of 50 congregations in the Pacific Central West Council, for the Union for Reform Judaism. A California native, he spent 17 years as a congregational rabbi in Ventura, Santa Monica and San Jose. He and his wife, family therapist/spiritual director Aliza Berk, were ordained on the same day in 1980. She was one of the first female rabbis in America.

“I’m starting my fifth year here,” says the thoughtful, affable rabbi. “I had missed the rootedness of a single community. I think the congregation was looking for a senior rabbi who could form genuine partnerships with the lay and professional leaders, to promote and enhance the congregation. I think I’ve done that. There’s a peaceful, joyous tone at the congregation now.

“This congregation has been on the cutting edge,” Rabbi Berk continues. “One of the finest programmatic and spiritual of Reform congregations. We’ve continued that, adding a level of stability. The membership remains fairly consistent; it’s hovered around 1,200-1,300 families for the past 10 years. We’re a little bit down since the economy sputtered, but we’re doing our best to rise to the challenge. We’re still the largest congregation between Los Angeles and Buenos Aires!”

And what does he think is the secret to CBI’s long-term success?

“In the early days, being the only temple in town was not the only secret,” the rabbi says. “We were blessed with very good leadership that established a social, cultural and Jewish center. Third and Laurel was the cultural center for the whole city. Some non-Jewish neighbors helped contribute to the building of Third and Laurel. And our members have been leaders in all aspects of the Jewish and civic community ever since.”

A couple of years ago, the rabbi and board decided to revisit the CBI mission.

“That’s the clearest self-perception of the members,” he says. And what he learned was that “the members are very serious about outreach to the community, and to interfaith families.

“As long as anyone can remember, the senior rabbi has officiated at interfaith marriages. This congregation has done many things to reach out and create a sense of community. We’re very active with social justice. We have an award-winning adult education program and an extraordinary variety and depth of Jewish learning opportunities.

”We have an astonishing teen and youth choir, comprising nearly 70 kids. Our Chai Band provides highly musical services. The Temple-based chavurot (small egalitarian groups) have become extended families for many members who, like most San Diegans, are transplants from other places.”

After just five years, Rabbi Berk already has the longest tenure of any CBI senior rabbi in the past decade. At 59, he says, “I’m here, God and the congregation willing, through to retirement.”

In the meantime, he’s worked out a Five-Year Plan centered around Five Big Ideas.

“We’re very serious about using this opportunity,” Rabbi Berk says, “of not just reveling in the past or celebrating the present, but planning for the future.”


Beth Israel’s Big Ideas

•Youth. Providing a second home to young people through social, educational and spiritual connections and offering them a meaningful role in building and running the programs that develop these connections.

•Caring Community. Providing acknowledgment, engagement and support through every stage of life.

•Lifelong Learning. Engaging members and non-members in varied programs about what it means to be Jewish.

•Creating Connections. Developing “multiple points of connection so all feel welcomed and cared for, including interfaith, seniors, young singles/couples and LGTBQ.” May also include programming beyond the walls of CBI.

•Jewish Culture, Music and the Arts. Providing opportunities for all congregants to connect spiritually to music and the arts; creating programs that honor Jewish history and culture in music, literature, theater and film.


And that’s just until 2015. With lofty intentions like these, imagine what the 200th anniversary celebration will be like!


A Sampling of 150th Anniversary Activities


The Opening Celebration (Sept. 18) launched the yearlong festivities with national, state and local dignitaries.

The Closing Celebration (May 19, 2012) will be a dinner and concert featuring film, TV and theater legend Mandy Patinkin, at Qualcomm Hall.

The Torah Project: the commissioning of a new Torah, to be created by Soferet (female Torah scribe) Julie Seltzer, one of the few women to have written an entire Torah scroll (62 sheets, 248 columns, 10,416 lines, 304,805 letters). Meet-and-greet and scribing sessions with Seltzer will be held throughout the year. She’ll be present for a Chanukah program Dec. 11.

Three-Temple Tour: three dates, three historic visits. The first is Sunday, Oct. 23 at 10 a.m. at CBI’s original home, the former Second Avenue and Beech Street synagogue, now located in Heritage Park in Old Town. Scholars Joellyn Zollman, Stan Schwartz and Don Harrison invite you to learn about Jewish life in early San Diego. Free, but you must reserve your spot by Oct. 17 (www.cbisd.org/rsvp). A Classical Reform service will be held at Third Avenue and Laurel Street (now known as Ohr Shalom Synagogue) Jan. 27, 2012. The La Jolla reception May 6 will celebrate CBI’s 10th year at the current facility on Towne Centre Drive.

Speakers Series: (November-April) visits by seven distinguished Jewish scholars will “inspire, enlighten, inform and provoke.” The first presentation, Nov. 11, is by Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, historian and scholar who won a landmark case against the world’s leading Holocaust denier.

Endowment Campaign: to secure the financial future of the historic Congregation and fulfill the strategic plan of Big Ideas.


For more information on CBI’s 150th anniversary, including the full line-up of speakers for the Speakers Series, the Torah Project, the Three-Temple Tour, history, current information, and a complete calendar of events, visit www.bethisrael150.org.

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