San Diego history typically isn’t synonymous with Judaism. Instead, many of the city’s historic buildings, markers and plaques recall a strong Catholic influence, from Father Junipero Serra and the first California mission, to Old Town and the Padres, to Friars Road and the University of San Diego. But today, amid a cluster of Victorian-style homes (now used as shops and inns) in San Diego’s Heritage Park — on Juan and Harney streets, near Old Town — rests the sole representation of early religious life from the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Temple Beth Israel, one of the two oldest existing synagogue structures in California, according to Stanley Schwartz, president of the Jewish Historical Society of San Diego. It’s the first of three buildings to house today’s Congregation Beth Israel in UTC, which is nearing its 150th anniversary next year.
In May, three months of renovations were completed on the temple, the first major repairs since it was moved to Heritage Park in 1978 and completely restored in 1982. Since its arrival to Heritage Park, it’s been used as a non-sectarian public meeting space and event venue. Seeing it now is to view it as those Jewish pioneers must have seen it when they built it for about $8,000 (including land and construction), Schwartz says, in 1889. The temple’s current appearance gives little hint to its numerous roles over the past 120 years. Instead, its brown-painted exterior, stained glass Star of David windows, painted wood floors and bima are close, if not identical, to what the simple redwood building would have looked like new.
The late 19th century Jewish community in San Diego was nothing like it is today. In 1850, the same year the city was incorporated with a population of 650, the first Jew, Louis Rose, arrived from Germany via New Orleans and Texas, setting into motion the growth and expansion of the area’s Jewish community. Jews trickled in from 1850-1880, writes Henry Schwartz, founder of the Jewish Historical Society of San Diego, in an article in 1981.
In those early years, a handful of Jews gathered in homes to observe High Holy Days and pray together. An Orthodox congregation, Adat Yeshurun, was organized in 1861, which became the Reform Congregation Beth Israel in 1886, Henry Schwartz writes. In 1887, during a boom time, they incorporated with 40 male members so they could purchase land for their future synagogue. Two of those men were Simon and Adolph Levi, two of five Levi brothers who had come to San Diego from Bohemia and who would become key players in the development of the area Jewishly, economically and philanthropically.
Lifelong San Diego resident Robert Levi, the great-grandson of Adolph, writes in his self-published “Adolph Levi: The Life and Times of a San Diego Pioneer” about his great-grandfather and great-uncle — both businessmen, landowners and real estate investors.
“Adolph and Simon were among the new leaders,” Robert Levi writes. “…Their vision and vitality were sorely needed…” Simon Levi acted as the congregation’s first treasurer, and Adolph was instrumental in selecting the site. Both men would go on to be president (Simon from 1909-1912 and Adolph from 1912-1926), Stanley Schwartz writes. (Schwartz also writes that Simon’s wife, Ermance, organized the Ladies Hebrew Aid Society with other ladies in the congregation in 1890, which would go on to become, with three other women’s groups, today’s Jewish Family Service and United Jewish Federation.)
Though the center of town began where today’s Old Town is located, the population slowly shifted to today’s Downtown area in the 1870s, Stanley Schwartz writes, and when the congregation was ready to build, they selected a location at the corner of 2nd and Beech streets. They chose to build an edifice modeled after the structure that housed a local Unitarian Church, “a small, unpretentious structure, which they had previously rented for services,” Henry Schwartz writes.
Construction began in July 1889 and was complete by September. The first service at the new Temple Beth Israel was Erev Rosh Hashanah. The congregation now had 80 men, many with wives and children in the Sunday school, but the next few decades wouldn’t be easy. Occasional economic downturns and rabbinic turnover presented challenges, often leaving the congregation shrinking and without a rabbi. To compensate, the congregation rented its temple to a handful of Christian congregations over the years.
In 1905, a flood of Eastern European Jews entered the United States, Stanley Schwartz writes, and many settled in San Diego. An Orthodox congregation, Tifereth Israel (which later split into Orthodox Tifereth Israel and Conservative Beth Jacob, before they switched to the denominations they maintain today), began holding separate services in Temple Beth Israel. Frieda Townes (nee Judd, formerly Judelowitz), who at 103 years old has called San Diego home she moved here with her family in 1912, recalls with some difficulty her girlhood at Temple Beth Israel.
“My mother and father were very religious,” she recalls from her Rancho Bernardo home. “My mother had a kosher restaurant out of our home, and our family all dressed up to go to [synagogue].”
Though Townes says she recalls the Orthodox services her family attended being in Hebrew and separating men and women (unlike the Reform services, which were in English and allowed mixed seating), she also recalls sitting with her sisters behind her mother and father, as well as attending with the Levi family. For these reasons, whether she attended the Reform or Orthodox services is unclear, but she probably knew Simon and Adolph.
Through the next decade or so, until the 1920s, Congregation Beth Israel cycled through a series of rabbis and steadily grew. In 1923, they’d expanded so much that their building at 2nd and Beech was no longer satisfactory. In 1923, they purchased their second property at 3rd and Laurel streets (currently the site of Ohr Shalom Synagogue) for $11,000, Stanley Schwartz writes, and sold their original building and property for $20,000 in 1926. In 1926, at a cost of $100,000, the new structure was built and dedicated.
Temple Beth Israel didn’t revisit its first home at 2nd and Beech until 1978. By that time, the Fraternal Spiritualist Church had come to own the structure in 1938 following a handful of other churches, organizations and a bank. By 1973, with tall buildings rising along 2nd and Beech, Beth Israel’s leadership became concerned for the future of their first home.
“The then-Rabbi [Joel] Goor of Beth Israel was a history buff, as was I, and of course very interested in the traditions of the temple” says Jim Milch, who was president of Beth Israel at its 3rd and Laurel location for about 10 years in the 70s. “Between ourselves, we became aware that the [Spiritualist] church…wanted to get rid of the building and turn the lot into something [more] useful.”
Milch took action, helping the congregation to come up with $10,000 to repurchase the building from the Spiritualists. Beth Israel then gifted the building to the county, which then worked with local architect and Save Our Heritage Organization President Marc Tarasuck to cut it in two, separate it from its foundation and move it to Heritage Park.
“The deal was that it would be restored to its original historic fabric and that it would always be a place for public assembly,” Milch says. “And that is something that has been maintained throughout [the building’s] history [in Heritage Park]…I thought this was a wonderful opportunity when you consider the road the Jews have traveled, even in Southern California, to have their house of worship. And this was the first Jewish house of worship in San Diego. As an element of a public park, that was wonderful.”
After its complex move across town, the temple sat for another four years, awaiting funds from the county for desperately needed renovations. The renovations finally came, at a price tag of about half a million dollars, according to Milch. Decades and layers were peeled back, revealing many original features. The bima that had been boarded up by the church was uncovered and restored, plaster was removed and wood repaired or replaced, Tarasuck says. In 1982, restorations were complete, and Temple Beth Israel opened to the public as a place for public gathering, meetings and events, including many a Jewish wedding and bar mitzvah.
Milch, who had hoped his daughter, Sarah, would be able to have her bat mitzvah there (but who couldn’t because it took place when the temple was closed for renovations), eventually convinced her to marry there, which she was happy to do in 2000.
“My husband and I both fell in love with the location before we married there,” Sarah Milch says. “Since my bat mitzvah there didn’t work out, I said for sure I wanted to be married there.” (About eight years ago, Jim Milch and his wife celebrated a recommitment of their own wedding vows in the temple with other couples from their havurah at Beth Israel.)
And the genealogical connections don’t end there. Robert Levi, the great-grandson of Adolph Levi, was himself married in the temple in 2001, a nod to the ancestor whose contributions to the Jewish community give him nachas today.
“[Adolph] did everything for future generations,” Levi says. “You’ve got to respect it, you’ve got to be fortunate and you’ve got to be lucky. It makes me proud.”
Following the takeover of the Heritage Park leasehold by Pacific Hospitality Group last July, the entirety of Heritage Park (including Temple Beth Israel) underwent $4 million in improvements and renovations as the beginning of a massive redevelopment of the park. According to Grand, the temple and its availability to the public as a meeting place will remain unchanged. The temple, which has gone without any kind of identifying marker or plaque explaining its history, will soon acquire an elaborate monument on the corner of Juan and Harney streets that will describe its significance to San Diego and the Jewish community. He has also retained two antique organs more than a century old that were donated to the county and placed in the temple for use during events. For more information on Temple Beth Israel, the following resources are helpful:
2460 Heritage Park Row, San Diego
Jewish Historical Society of San Diego, Stanley Schwartz
1934 Pentuckett Ave. San Diego
“Adolph Levi: The Life and Times of a San Diego Pioneer” researched and compiled by Robert N. Levi (available in San Diego public libraries)