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Our History

Congregation B’nai Israel is steeped in tradition, pride, spirituality - and enough history to fill our great sanctuary several times over. Founded by a pair of merchants who moved to Sacramento during the Gold Rush, it has survived flooding, seven relocations and no fewer than four separate fires, including a devastating arson attack in 1999.

Little wonder, perhaps, that the congregation serves as a leader in social action and social justice issues - opening its doors to the homeless during winter, building bridges with the Christian and Muslim communities, offering a spiritual home to the LGBT community, delivering Shabbat meals to AIDS patients and collecting food for the region’s hungry during High Holy Days.

                                       

Its beginnings: Among the oldest synagogues in the West, it is the first Jewish congregation in Sacramento and the largest in the region - so big, in fact, that it has spawned three other congregations during its history, two of which continue to thrive.

It began in 1849, when an emigre named Moses Hyman invited fellow Jews into his home, located above his jewelry shop on Front Street in Old Sacramento, to celebrate the High Holy Days. He later teamed up with Albert Priest, believed to be Sacramento’s first Jewish settler, who owned a dry goods store in Sutter’s Fort. They are considered the co-founders of what was originally called Temple B’nai Israel - a beacon of Orthodox Judaism in the rough and tumble of the Gold Rush.

As was custom, the young congregation built a cemetery before it built a synagogue. Hyman purchased land for a Jewish burial ground on a parcel south of J Street near 32nd Street, the original Home of Peace Cemetery. Then Hyman and other congregants purchased a house of worship from what was then called the Methodist Episcopal denomination. The little chapel, at the corner of 7th and L streets, opened Sept. 2, 1852, and was the first congregationally owned synagogue west of the Mississippi.

Sacramento’s early days were filled with drama and turmoil, and B’nai Israel wasn’t exempt. A fire destroyed most of the city two months after the synagogue opened, consuming this new home. During much of the 1850s, B’nai Israel operated out of three different homes on 5th Street. A story in the old Sacramento Union newspaper observed the Orthodox tradition: “The females take no part in the exercises, except the repetition of the prayers. They are hidden from view, in the back seats, and by their silence and seclusion, reminds one of the veiled inmates in Mohammedan mosques.”

In 1858, the congregation bought another home from the Methodist Episcopalian church, again at 7th and L streets. But the congregation confronted more turmoil: As the building was being renovated, a group of congregants departed amid a split over who should serve as rabbi. Those who left formed a new congregation called B’nai Ha Shalom.

The divorce didn’t last long. In 1861, B’nai Israel lost another home to fire. The following winter, Sacramento was inundated by an epic flood, causing enormous damage to many of the grave sites at Home of Peace. The adversity brought strength and unity, however: B’nai Israel and B’nai Ha Shalom mourned together and soon reunited. In 1864, the congregation established another permanent home - the third in its young history - in a former Presbyterian Church concert hall on 6th Street.

Synagogue at 15th St. between N & O


Photo above, groundbreaking at 3600 Riverside

 

The Reform Movement: The emergence of the Reform Movement brought B’nai Israel to a crossroads in the 1870s. Reform services were shorter, conducted largely in English and featured organ music. B’nai Israel’s congregants openly debated whether to remain Orthodox or embrace the new traditions. Those favoring Orthodox sat on one side of the temple, while the Reform advocates sat on the other. In 1879, the split became permanent: Those who favored Orthodoxy left B’nai Israel and formed Mosaic Law, which today is part of the Conservative branch of Judaism.

The split didn’t weaken B’nai Israel. A quarter century later, in 1904, it moved to a building at 1421 15th St. Once again, though, the fates nearly brought the congregation down. In 1912, a stove in the basement overheated and set the building on fire during Sunday school. No one was hurt but the building was out of commission for a year.

Moving to Riverside Blvd. The rebuilt location on 15th Street remained B’nai Israel’s home for more than 30 years. In the 1950s congregation president Dalton Feldstein, considered one of the patriarchs of B’nai Israel, proposed moving to 3600 Riverside Boulevard, its current home. A capital fundraising campaign, buttressed by sweat equity and the donation of materials, resulted in the dedication of the new synagogue in 1954.

The building boom continued into the 1960s, with the addition of an education wing named for temple leader Buddy Kandel.

But before long B’nai Israel found itself facing new waves of turmoil. The construction of I-5 behind the temple forced the congregation to consider relocating again. There were months of discussions with Mosaic Law about sharing a site. Eventually the congregation decided to stay put but more turbulence occurred in the early 1970s when the temple fired its cantor amid considerable controversy. Fifty families left and founded Beth Shalom.

The man chosen to heal the wounds was Rabbi Lester Frazin, who took over the pulpit in 1974 and remained the congregation’s spiritual leader for 20 years. He continued the congregation’s tradition of community service, focusing on helping pregnant teens, feeding the hungry and supporting the gay and lesbian communities. Midway through his tenure, B’nai Israel built the Harry M. Tomkin Memorial Chapel, Sosnick Library and an administration building.


 

The 1999 Arson:  Rabbi Brad Bloom, installed as Rabbi Frazin’s successor in 1995, would lead B’nai Israel through one of the gravest crises in its history. The June 18, 1999 fire, set by a pair of white supremacist brothers from Redding, destroyed the administration building, including the library, and left the sanctuary unusable. The brothers also set fire to Beth Shalom and Knesset Israel Torah Center.

B’nai Israel’s torahs were rescued by temple president Lou Anapolsky. The next day, a young congregant named Max Littman celebrated his Bar Mitvah - at the Sacramento Convention Center.

Rabbi Bloom and Assistant Rabbi Mona Alfi, the first woman rabbi in the congregation’s history, led the congregation and the entire Jewish community in responding to the fires. Accompanied by elected officials, religious leaders and others, they joined 4,000 Sacramentans at a unity rally a few days after the fire. Months later, more than 1,200 members of B’nai Israel gathered at the Convention Center to celebrate Rosh Hashanah.

Rebuilding, again:  B’nai Israel spent more than a year without a sanctuary, alternating among the social hall, chapel and the outdoor Opper Courtyard to hold services. When the sanctuary was finally restored, congregants realized that more change was coming. Another capital campaign was getting under way, this time to transform the 1950s-era sanctuary into a modern house of worship.

Light and airy, with a view of Land Park behind the ark and a graceful chupa descending from the ceiling, B’nai Israel’s new sanctuary opened shortly before High Holy Days in 2005. But as always, the past wasn’t completely left behind. The lettering that spelled out the motto on the exterior of the old building - “Love thy Neighbour as Thyself” were preserved and reinstalled along the Riverside Boulevard entrance.

More change came a year later. Rabbi Bloom left to lead a new congregation. Rabbi Alfi, who had moved to Davis to run the UC Davis Hillel program, returned to B’nai Israel in 2006 as the congregation’s first female senior rabbi.

Another transition came in 2009, with the passing of longtime Cantor Carl Naluai, Jr. Trained as an opera singer, Cantor Nalaui strengthened B’nai Israel’s musical program and its choir. He composed much of the music still used in services. Julie Steinberg, who worked and studied with him for many years, filled the void with her music and passion for teaching.

Today:  Rabbi Alfi’s leadership led to a new era of community service, political endeavors and social justice. She served as chaplain of the state Senate for seven years, and the congregation lent its name and support to those advocating same-sex marriage in California. As controversy raged over immigration in the first year of the Trump administration, B’nai Israel declared itself a sanctuary congregation for immigrants, the first religious community in the region to do so.

As B’nai Israel approaches 170 years of Jewish life, it continues to be a vibrant part of the Sacramento community.  Six hundred families strong, it honors its history, even as it creates new traditions.

Wed, October 17 2018 8 Cheshvan 5779