Congregation Sherith Israel
Illustrations by Kit Haskell
Congregation Sherith Israel was a unique design from its superb architect Albert Pissis (pronounced PIE-sis). He usually produced Classical Revival buildings like the Emporium, the Flood building, and the medical library on the next corner at Webster and Sacramento. Here on California the mood is weighty, round-arched Romanesque with a touch of the Middle East.
None of Pissis’ other buildings has such an emphasis on the heavy horizontal, or such thickly layered clusters of columns and concentric arches. Also unusual for Pissis are the thick foliage designs of the columns’ capitals, the dark and deeply recessed entry porch, crisply carved in sandstone (now painted), and the great rose window. The building announces itself as a religious structure, but not a Christian one.
Sherith Israel was one of two Jewish Congregations that by April 1851 had emerged from a tent meeting for the High Holy Days in 1849. The rivalry with Congregation Emanu-EI has continued ever since. Congregation Sherith Israel has always been the more conservative of the two. The lion’s share of membership has swung back and forth between them more than once.
The name means “loyal remnant of Israel,” which the Hebrews in Gold Rush California must have felt themselves to be. Congregation Sherith Israel has not trumpeted itself about the community at large or produced any books about its own history. It has gone about its high work quietly, among its own people.
The Congregation’s first building was dedicated September 3, 1854, on Stockton Street north of Broadway. From 1870 to 1905 they met at Post and Taylor, where the Bohemian Club is now. The present building was dedicated September 23, 1905, before a throng estimated at 2,500 worshippers.
Nearly seven months later. Temple Sherith Israel survived the great earthquake with only $1,000 worth of damage. The City soon borrowed it, at a handsome rental fee, as a temporary courthouse. Under the blue dome with hundreds of sparkling electric lights, windows showing interlace patterns or psalms and religious symbols painted by Attilio Maretti, political boss Abe Ruef and others stood trial for corruption in the City’s Great Graft Clean-up.
Ironically, Ruefs parents were members. Their Rabbi, Jacob Nieto, tried without success to arrange some sort of plea bargain between Ruef and the crusading District Attorney Francis Heney. But neither was willing to compromise. In the long run Ruef was the only one of the grafters who went to jail. The graft trials had severely divided the larger community. When Heney started prosecuting the people who paid the graft money, the town’s movers and shakers felt he was getting too close for comfort. The next election produced a District Attorney who dropped the graft cases.
By that time a new Hall of Justice was functioning on Kearny where the Holiday Inn is now. Temple Sherith Israel returned to the purposes for which it was built. It has remained true to them ever since.
Currently the Congregation Sherith Israel is undergoing extensive renovations including seismic upgrades.
— taken from the Victorian Alliance‘s 2006 “Grande Dame Victorians... Along the Fireline in Pacific Heights” catalog