For more than a half a century, Congregation B’nai Israel has had a temple in Land Park that has been a very important place for the local Jewish community. The site, however, is only part of the rich history of the congregation’s presence in Sacramento.
The roots of Congregation B’nai Israel, in fact, date back to the great Gold Rush of California.
During this time in history, Jewish immigrants arrived in Sacramento mainly from Germany and Poland. Others arrived from Russia, England and France.
Of these early Jewish immigrants, Moses Hyman, who resided at 56 Front St., is recognized as the first Jewish leader in Sacramento.
Congregation B’nai Israel was established in 1852 as an outgrowth from the Hebrew Benevolent Society, which was founded by Jewish pioneers during the later months of 1850.
Services of the congregation were held in private homes in the capital city until June 1852, when a building was purchased from the First Methodist Episcopal Church.
The prefabricated building, which was located at 7th and L streets, was shipped around Cape Horn from Baltimore to San Francisco in 1849.
The building, which was then brought to Sacramento and consecrated in September 1852, became the first synagogue west of the Mississippi.
Unfortunately for the congregation, the original synagogue was burned down during a great fire, which also destroyed many other buildings in the area.
Following the fire, under Rabbi Z. Newstadter, a congregation met at a temporary temple on 5th Street.
By 1864, a new temple on 6th Street, between J and K streets, was consecrated and used for services and other gatherings for the following 40 years.
In about 1880, the congregation shifted from Orthodox Judaism to Reform Judaism.
A new, two-story synagogue with an upstairs sanctuary, a social hall, stage and kitchen, was constructed and opened on 15th Street, between N and O streets, in about 1904.
The history of the Jewish synagogue in the capital city includes many notable Sacramentans.
Among the more notable people who were members of the congregation were David Lubin and Harris Weinstock.
Many present day Sacramentans are familiar with the names Weinstock and Lubin due to the longtime existence of the department store, Weinstock-Lubin and Co., which was located at 11th and K streets. Other locations of the store, which was later known as Weinstock’s, were located in the greater Sacramento area.
The name David Lubin has also been memorialized through the David Lubin Elementary School at 3535 M St. in East Sacramento. The school, which had the previous address 3700 K St., opened in about the mid-1920s.
In addition to his connection to the Weinstock-Lubin store, Lubin is also recognized as the founder of the International Institute of Agriculture.
Weinstock, who was Lubin’s half-brother, was the co-founder of the Sutter Club, the Unitarian and Economic clubs of San Francisco and the Commonwealth Club of California.
Additionally, the temple’s records show that Weinstock, who occupied the temple’s pulpit when no rabbi was present, was responsible for bringing Rabbi Joseph L. Levy to Sacramento.
Levy was recognized as the “bright light of Judaism” and was invited to speak at a variety of temple and civic functions.
Other notable people who were members of the congregation were Isador Cohen, August Heilbron, Albert Elkus and Lewis Gerstle.
Following World War II, the Jewish community of Sacramento expanded immensely.
It was also during this time that the 15th Street synagogue was showing its age.
A joke about the building at the time was that the structure was held together with baling wire.
During the late 1940s, property was purchased for a $250,000 synagogue at the site of the old Riverside Baths, a public swimming pool on Riverside Boulevard and 11th Avenue.
Heading the drive to collect funds for the new temple was the congregation’s president, Dalton Feldstein.
So important was Feldstein’s assistance with the project to have the synagogue constructed that the structure became known as “the house that Dalton built.”
The cornerstone for the Riverside synagogue was laid on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 1953 at 11 a.m.
Attending the event were representatives of Gov. Goodwin J. Knight and Congressman John E. Moss, Jr., who placed items in the cornerstone.
Following the cornerstone laying ceremony, public tours of the new building were led by leaders of the congregation.
On Friday, April 2, 1954, the then-recently completed synagogue was dedicated, as more than 1,000 Sacramento Jews, as well as Christians and others, gathered for the event.
The Sacramento Bee reported that the dedication ceremony presented “a spirit of brotherhood among all faiths and all men.”
During the dedication ceremony, Rabbi Irving I. Hausman read a prayer and introduced Feldstein, who he described as the “propelling force” behind the new synagogue.
In his dedicatory address, Feldstein said, “This is the first time in my life that I have had the honor and pleasure of dedicating a house of worship. The problems and the trials that went into bringing (the synagogue) into being are as nothing tonight.”
In the early 1960s, a religious school building, which was later named in memory of Bennett “Buddy” Kandel, was added to the temple grounds.
The synagogue’s records show that from about the mid-1940s until 1985, membership in the congregation grew from about 200 individuals to about 700 families.
It was also in 1985 that a groundbreaking was held for a chapel, a library and an office building.
Another feature of the temple site is the Opper Courtyard, an outdoor sanctuary named after Sy and Estelle Opper and dedicated in April 1998 to Sophia Dubowsky for her devotion to her family and the Jewish community.
On June 18, 1998, a firebomb destroyed the temple’s library, but through much support, funds were raised for the reconstruction of the building.
The trauma and destruction caused by the incident aroused the sympathies of many Jewish and non-Jewish people in the community.
Following the bombing, Rabbi Mona Alfi commented about this tragedy.
“Ironically, I think that much more will come out of the bombing than any harm that was inflicted upon us,” Alfi said. “I think we’re going to come across as a stronger congregation (and) a more involved congregation.”
The congregation’s ability to persevere and overcome this dark incident in the synagogue’s history is a fine example of the outlook of its members.
In a 1999 documentary about the history of the synagogue, it was mentioned that the true spirit of Congregation B’nai Israel is not in its buildings, but instead in the soul of its members.
Working to serve the spiritual needs of its members and guests, weekly services are led by Rabbi Alfi on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings.
Today, Congregation B’nai Israel, which is recognized as the city’s oldest Jewish congregation, continues to honor its traditions of heritage while “creating a Jewish experience that is relevant to today’s society.”
For additional information regarding Congregation B’nai Israel, call (916) 446-4861 or visit www.bnais.com.