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Jews in the Wild West

Jewish Life in San Francisco, 1860

by Israel J. Benjamin, "Benjamin the Traveler"

From Three Years in America, Hanover, 1862.

Congregation Sherith Israel

We turn now once more to Jewish affairs and begin our survey with the description of Congregation Sherith Israel.

This congregation was organized in San Francisco in 1849. Having no permanent building of its own, it held its religious services in various places which, from time to time, were destroyed by fire. Finally the congregation became tired of shifting about and in 1852 bought a place on Stockton Street and asked for contributions to build a synagogue. They were successful in securing enough money: the cornerstone was laid by Dr. Julius Eckmann on August sixth, and the building itself consecrated on September eighth. Thus the building was completed in the incredibly brief period of a month, although, it is true, with only a brick front. It is very beautiful and roomy, too, since it is one hundred feet in extent.

The congregation has about 110 members. They all come from northern Europe or England.

The service follows the correct Polish minhag (rite) and is strictly Orthodox. From the very beginning the congregation was founded on these principles and they are embodied in its construction so that they remain in force to this day and, according to all appearances, it is very unlikely that innovations will be made since the Rev. Dr. H. A. Henry, who conducts the services, is an Orthodox teacher in Israel. We shall have the opportunity, later, to say something about this gentleman. Until the autumn of 1857, the congregation had no regular minister, and the mohel (performer of the rite of circumcision) or the shochet (slaughterer of cattle or poultry according to Jewish laws) conducted religious services. In the autumn of 1857, the congregation elected the Rev. Dr. Henry of New York to preach and conduct the services. He has occupied that post to this day with the deepest respect and complete confidence of his congregation. He receives a salary of $1500 and the emoluments of his office. Mr. Israel Solomon, an Englishman, is the dearly beloved president of the congregation. He has been honored by this office for four successive years.

In 1849 the congregation bought a cemetery. For this purpose, subscriptions were solicited among the few Jews in San Francisco at that time, and the deed was made out in the name of three trustees for the benefit of all the Jews of San Francisco. When, in 1860, it was seen that this cemetery, small to begin with, was already filled, a suitable place for a cemetery was bought near the Dolores mission. It is surrounded by a brick wall and has a gate and a splendid building that serves as metaher house (mortuary, in which the dead are prepared for burial) and is provided with all modern improvements. The cemetery and house called for an expenditure of $16,000.

I was present at the elaborate ceremony of the consecration. The Jews of the city, generally, participated, as was evidenced by the presence of a large representation from the various congregations. This took place on May fifth. A platform was erected at the metaher house and very beautifully decorated. On the platform stood those who were conducting the ceremony, such as the preacher together with the officers and committee of the congregation, and guests. Dr. A. Kohen, the rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El, delivered the consecration-prayer in English, in a very elevating and touching manner, before those who were assembled; Dr. Julius Eckmann and others in turn chanted several psalms; the president of Congregation Sherith Israel then made a suitable address, at the conclusion of which he gave the president of the cemetery, M. Morris, the key to it, and the latter replied briefly. The ceremony concluded with a longer address of consecration by the Rev. Henry.

All hearts were deeply touched by the swift progress and rapid prosperity of the community. In a few years, plains and mountains had been converted into peaceful habitations; out of a Sahara of the desert they had come into a Canaan. That which in Europe had been barely possible in a long period of time was accomplished within eight years in America. The Jewish communities have fully organized themselves by the appointment of rabbis, the building of beautiful synagogues and the erection of schools, and in this way they promise to become a blessing for the generations to come. The impression of this ceremony will remain ineffaceable for all who were present. he fulfilment of the noble prophecies, if only in part and on a small scale, was here manifest. The worshippers of the Lord of Hosts have reassembled after their dispersion among all peoples; they have come from the most distant parts of the world, separated from each other by high mountains and wide seas, faithful to the religion of their fathers based upon divine revelation; and with pride one could cite the verse of the wise king: Many waters cannot quench the love [of learning and for the word of God]; neither can floods drown it (Song of Solomon 8.7).

The cemetery is thickly planted with all sorts of bushes and trees by the members of Congregation Sherith Israel. (Sherith means in Hebrew "remnant" or "remainder".) The cemetery is called Gibath Olam or "Hill of Eternity."

We cannot refrain from mentioning the pleasure that a visit to the synagogue of Sherith Israel always affords us. The service is still conducted in the true Jewish manner, as our ancient ancestors used to conduct it. During my stay in San Francisco I had the pleasure of visiting Dr. Henry frequently. I was introduced to him by Dr. Raphall of New York, and I gladly take advantage of this opportunity to thank him for his ready furthering of my interests by deed and counsel. I took the trouble to become better acquainted with the Jewish ministers of California and other places and so learnt that Dr. Henry is a native of England and is a disciple of the late Rabbi Herschell. He was a junior teacher, when still quite young, in the Free School of London, which was organized according to the Lancaster System (followed by the British and Foreign School Society of London). At the age of twenty he was appointed an assistant teacher in that school, which is in Bell Lane, Spitalfields. Three years later, according to the information received, he became a senior teacher and inspector. In the year 1842, he received a call to the synagogue on St. Alban's Place in the West End of London, was ordained a rabbi by the late Rabbi Herschell, and remained at this post until 1849. While in London, he acted as tutor for several years in the famous Rothschild family by whom he was greatly valued and respected. Many young men, natives of London, who are now ministers in various parts of the world, owe him their first acquaintance with Hebrew and English learning. This reverend man is now in his fifty-second year.

Following a call to New York by Dr. Simeon Abrahams, he went to the United States in 1849. He had become a close friend of Dr. Abrahams during his travels in Europe and Asia in 1848. Dr. Henry has become known as a writer through the publication of several useful elementary books for Jewish children. He has also become well known among the Freemasons. He belongs to the Order and, when a resident of London, was greatly esteemed by his late Highness, the Duke of Sussex, Grand Master of the Masonic Lodges in England. In this field, Dr. Henry published a pamphlet in Cincinnati on the origin of Freemasonry. This was well received by his fellow Masons.

The titles of his books are: "Class Book for Jewish Youth"; "Prayers for Jewish Women after Child-Birth"; "A Series of Sermons on the Faith of the Jews"; "A synopsis of Jewish History"; "An Edition of a Jewish Prayer-Book, according to an Improved Method with a Guide in English."

Since my journey through the American states was a fairly searching one, I had extensive opportunities to examine the libraries of various American rabbis and ministers. I found none, however, that was the equal of Dr. Henry's. It is not only large and select, but includes the best authors and editions of all our Hebrew literature. I spent many hours there reading the splendid writings of our sages—writings that are the monuments of our holy religion. And along with the memory of that pleasure that brought my childhood and youth vividly before me—for they were devoted wholly to study —I shall some day, when again on foreign soil, recall the far-off coast of the Pacific Ocean where my brothers worship the God of their fathers in peace and quiet and count those hours as among the fairest of my life.

Presentation of a Torah by the Hebra Bikur Holim
(Society for Visiting the Sick)
to the Congregation on May 19, 1861

Upon invitation by the secretary, Mr. F. Phillips, I visited the synagogue on Stockton Street on May 19, 1861, and as a spectator at a scene the like of which I had not seen for many years. The presentation of a Holy Scroll of the Torah for the use of the synagogue is always accompanied by a festive ceremony. There was one here, too. The Holy Scroll in its mantle of silk and velvet, encircled by dark-gold fringe, with a shield of solid silver, the splendid work of the famous craftsmen, Nahl and Brothers, was presented to the congregation of Sherith Israel as a gift by J. P. Davis, the president of the society. Mr. Davis, on this occasion, made some felicitous remarks about the origin and progress of his society and closed with the wish that the organization, still small, might soon be able to number all those present among its members. Israel Solomon, Esq., president of the congregation, thanked the donors in a few, but effective words. Thereupon the Rev. Dr. Henry delivered an address that aroused general interest.

A beautiful detail of the ceremony and, in fact, the best and most useful that could be devised for such an occasion, was the sale of the privilege of filling in the last words of the Holy Scroll. A blank space had been left in the letters for this purpose. The first word that was sold was ומשה ("and Moses"). It was sold to Moses Morris, Esq., for $50. The second word was bought by C. Meyer, Esq., for $22; the third by H. Meyer, Esq., for $20; the fifth, שנה ("year") by L. King, Esq., for $17.50. In this way every word was disposed of to a different person; the average price was $12; and the total obtained increased the funds of the congregation by $800. The Jews consider it quite an unusual favor to be able to fill in a complete word, or even a letter, of the Holy Scroll. Therefore, most of the spectators compete with each other for the privilege of leaving in the Holy Scroll some memento which, unlike themselves, only the inexorable hand of time can destroy.

I cannot fail to mention with thanks that the president of the congregation bought me a word for ten dollars.

A large number were present at the occasion and several were by no means disinclined to underwrite the needs of Sherith Israel: an event worthy of mention.

This congregation is very friendly and generous to strangers and travelers. In witness of this noble disposition on their part, here is a transcript of a document sent me: "Congregation Sherith Israel, San Francisco, October 7, 1860. At a general meeting, held on the seventh of the current month, it was agreed and decided that the sum of two hundred and fifty dollars ($250) should be presented to Mr. I. J. Benjamin (the Second), traveler, of the Jewish faith, to help him in his research. It was further decided that the congregation, in case further help should be necessary, will gladly and in like measure give the matter their further attention. A copy of the above resolution shall be transmitted to the above Mr. I. J. Benjamin.

L.S. Fr. Phillips, Secretary."

This aid was all the more welcome because my money just then was pretty much exhausted and by its prompt payment I was in a position to continue my research in California.

Congregation Emanu-El

The synagogue of this congregation was dedicated on September 14, 1854, by the Rev. Dr. Julius Eckmann, their first rabbi. It is the largest and costliest synagogue in the city: it cost $35,000. Unlike Congregation Sherith Israel, this congregation has had many changes since its organization, particularly since Dr. Elkan Cohn,* the present preacher, became the head of it. Averse to all Orthodoxy, he has introduced "Reform" in its place. Dr. Cohn is a very eloquent preacher, a scholar and a gentleman, and much beloved by every Israelite of San Francisco. He receives an annual salary of $3,000, besides the emoluments of his office. Since he has been appointed for five years, it may be expected that in the immediate future there will be no more changes in the ritual and the congregation will continue along the path it has entered upon.

* Dr. Cohn is a native of Kosten in the duchy of Posen in the kingdom of Prussia and completed his studies in Berlin. His wife, Caroline, is a very lovely and learned lady.

The congregation numbers 260 members, chiefly Germans and French. Heinrich Seligmann, Esq., president of the congregation, has been elected to that honor for the fifth time. Mr. M. Sachs is vice-president. He is the owner of an important business and an enthusiastic supporter of whatever is noble and beautiful; his poor and needy brothers have much to thank him for and they have always found him a charitable man.

Mr. Daniel Levy, the cantor, is highly respected by his co-religionists and merits their respect because of his noble character, united, as it is, with learning. (I made his acquaintance in Algiers where he translated my first book into French.) In addition to his post as hazzan (cantor), he is also employed as a teacher by the congregation and in Dr. Cohn's school.

The "Reform," mentioned above, was introduced on the first evening of the New Year before last. It consists of the following: contrary to the usage until now, men and women sit together; piyyutim (religious poems) are omitted from the service; and the Torah is read through in three years (instead of one). The last change, as well as shortening the service and other changes in it, has not yet been fully carried out. A choir and organ are used during the service. The congregation is now planning to build a new synagogue for $100,000 and to donate the old synagogue to the Eureka Society for turning into a hospital. A cemetery was bought last year and dedicated. It cost $16,000. This cemetery and that of Sherith Israel are near each other: the latter is larger and more showy.

To show the spirit that prevails in Congregation Emanu-El, I present the report of its president, mentioned above; it also offers a good deal of insight into American life.

San Francisco, October 7, 1860

To the Officers and Members of Congregation Emanu-El

In accordance with tradition and in harmony with the principles of our constitution, I beg leave to present herewith my annual report and at the same time offer a brief review of the condition of our organization. I shall try to bring before you a true and impartial description of all that has happened and been transacted since the last annual meeting.

First, and above all, it should be said that we have good cause to congratulate ourselves and to lift up our thanks to the Lord of all creation that He has preserved the lives of all our members during the past year, so that, with the exception of the death of the wife of one of our most respected members, we have, fortunately, no deceased to mention among us. May this continue to be the case and may we continue to be blessed with health and prosperity. However, kind Providence prepared a sad blow for us among the children of the members of our congregation, and many have to mourn the untimely loss of innocent beings who have been called to a better world. According to the report of the vice-president, eighteen children of the members of our congregation have been buried. As we extend our heartfelt sympathy to those parents whose children have been unexpectedly snatched away, we pray from the bottom of our hearts that Providence will spare us in the future from similar misfortune, so that our young ones will grow up to be the pride of parents and society.

It gives me great pleasure to be able to inform you of the rapid increase of our membership. According to the lists and records, fifty-three new members were admitted; of this number, only two withdrew. There were two resignations, and four names were stricken from the list of members. Thus we have gained forty-nine (sic) good members. Our membership is now 227 and, if our number continues to increase as it has in the last twelve months, Emanu-El will soon be the largest congregation in the United States.

I am also glad to be able to make a satisfactory report of our finances. At present our expenses are very great —ever since we had the good fortune to acquire our eloquent and learned preacher and leader. Disbursements for the choir have also increased as well as other expenses for the needs of so large a congregation. The board has tried to be as economical as possible but, nevertheless, the regular expenses come to $750 a month and will probably amount to $800 after the establishment of the new school. The sale of seats this year was very welcome in order to cover this great sum and, as you can see from the report of the Seat Committee, $5008 was collected and $60 is still outstanding. This is an increase of almost $2000 above last year. This is more than necessary to meet the additional regular expenses. Many of our members are in favor of dispensing with the Gaben,* but to bring this about another way must be found to enable us to cover our heavy disbursements. If we figure the monthly contributions of 110 members at $200 every month and consider that our interim loan-certificates are soon due, we cannot easily do without the $2500 or $3000 which the receipt of the Gaben amounts to on the average, without increasing the monthly dues; and I do not consider this advisable or just. We have many good and useful members who would regard such an increase as too heavy a tax and—if I may be permitted to express my own opinion—they would be quite right. Therefore, I consider it best to make no change in this respect and let things remain as they are.

*Upon being called up to the reading of the Torah, offerings are made in many places. In many congregations these amount to a considerable sum.

Our loan-certificates have, fortunately, been reduced to $5919, including interest—a good sign of the liberality of our members, who have reduced a debt of $35,000 for our building, to so insignificant a sum. You will see, from the report of the financial secretary and treasurer, that there is a sum of $5737 in the treasury, plus the dues for the current month and the offerings during the holidays. And if you add the bills due us and, on the other hand, the bills that have as yet not been presented to the board for payment, the sums will balance exactly, and we remain free of debt. If in addition we consider that since our last annual meeting we have taken out of the congregation's funds approximately five thousand dollars for the cemetery, we may be proud of the satisfactory state of our finances and look forward to excellent prospects for the future.

Furthermore, we cannot overestimate our good fortune in having acquired as our preacher a noble, learned and eloquent man like the Rev. Dr. Elkan Cohn, who now lives among us and with us. I believe I express the conviction of almost all when I say we could have made no better or wiser choice. He is a faithful teacher who shows us and instructs us in the true faith that was given to our forefathers. It is therefore our duty to assist him in his difficult office and to offer our aid that we may encourage him in his sacred task, so that this new field—for which he left the place where he was settled, happy, beloved and respected—may, prove satisfactory to him, and prove blessed and instructive to us and our children.

The most important task that remains to claim our attention is that of the erection of a school for our children, and it is the wish of our preacher that quick measures may be taken to carry out this most essential objective. At the last quarterly meeting this matter was put before the board for a final decision, but since it was not in its power to appoint teachers and to expend money for salaries, it could not carry out the project. I trust that you will now take all the necessary steps to carry out this praiseworthy work, so that the children will soon derive benefit from the favorable opportunities that will then be offered, and will be able to receive all the instruction necessary to their becoming some day good and useful members of our congregation.

Furthermore, the great growth of our congregation points to the necessity of providing a house of worship adequate for all. It is clear that in a short time our synagogue will not be large enough for our needs, and I take the liberty of urging you to select soon a suitable plot of ground in the center of the city that a new house of worship, enough to meet our needs, may be erected. Then the attempt might be made, if possible, to employ our present house of worship for some other, though similar, purpose. I take the additional liberty of proposing that a fixed sum be set aside from the rental of seats in our present synagogue for the specific purpose of buying a plot so that later, and as soon as possible, the needs of the congregation may be satisfied.

At our last meeting an improvement of our organization was proposed, namely, that the office of the secretary in charge of the minutes and that of the secretary in charge of correspondence be consolidated and that a fixed salary be set aside for the post. The necessity of adopting this proposal has already been explained to you and, much as I am opposed to any increase in our expenses, nevertheless I consider this to be beneficial for the congregation. Although individual members are most willing to serve the congregation without payment, the demands of the office of secretary at present are too great for anyone to undertake without recompense and, should we grant this, we on the other hand would have the right to demand that those in office devote part of their time to our affairs.

I might further suggest that a certain amount be given the Jewish traveler, 1. J. Benjamin. I believe that we would be performing a righteous act for our cause here and for the benefit of all the earth if we extend a helping hand to this estimable representative of our cause. San Francisco has rightly erected a glorious memorial for itself by the generous way in which it came to the help of its poor brothers in Morocco an will also, I hope, show its beneficence in this case and not hold back. I will bring this matter up again for your approval.*§

*With respect to this recommendation of the president, the following letter was later sent to me: "San Francisco, October 16, 1860. To I. J. Benjamin, Esq. Dear Sir: I have been instructed to inform you that at a meeting of Congregation Emanu-El, held on the fourteenth inst., it was decided to set aside the sum of $250 in order to assist you in your purpose to journey to the Orient. Respectfully yours, A. Eger, Secretary. (L.S.)" Since, at that time, my financial condition was very weak because of my rather lengthy stay in California, the high cost of living and particularly because I spared no sacrifice for my researches, I tried to collect the above sum quickly, but my efforts were unsuccessful. This was all the more disagreeable for me because withholding this payment was the base work of a man who in his petty egoism begrudged others everything and only worried about himself and tho no means too base to achieve his ends. In order to place this matter more fully before my readers, I see myself compelled to give the due measure of publicity and deserved contempt to the name of this man, and I beg the reader, if my words seem to betray too much irritation, to take into consideration how much I was embarrassed by him. In every congregation there are those who have crept into its midst and have enrolled themselves as members and who bring with them no additional life but rather death, and give no light but throw shadows. This was also the case in this distinguished congregation, most highly respected by the author. One of these "darkeners" was discovered by me in the person of Mr. Mayblum—unworthy of the name, for this "mayflower" does not blossom with a refreshing odor but spreads a stupefying smell. Mr. Mayblum has now been a member of the congregation for a year, does the least that he should do as a member or only what he must, namely, he pays his regular dues and has no higher interests. Therefore, when this model congregation is inclined to show its benevolence and spend more or less, he is quickly ready to hinder this at every opportunity and, by inducing others who think as he does to support him, tries to start a rebellion. As result, there were no less than five sessions held about me that decided now "aye," now "nay, until the nays won. I believe that it is to such a man that the Mishnah refers in the tractate Aboth: (Lo yitten v'lo yittenu aherim, rasha') "He who will not give himself and is minded that others should not give—he is a wicked man" (5:13) Because of my straightened circumstances at that time and my many sacrifices, a few who were well-intentioned towards me privately offered me a hundred dollars, but I refused this categorically because a traveler who finds himself embarrassed financially is not to be put in the same class as a beggar.

§ I have left this footnote in, although I believe it contains lashon hara.--The Webmaster.

I take the liberty of calling your attention to another fact. Before we were informed whether or not our highly esteemed preacher would accept the call to become our minister, I was, in the interval, instructed to write him and, accordingly, I informed him that, in case it seemed to him that an appointment for three years was too short a period and he would prefer to have it extended to five, the congregation would gladly enter into that stipulation. I consider it, therefore, only just for us to do as we promise and to extend the term of the appointment to five years. We may confirm the promised term unconcerned, for at last we have a man according to our wishes and needs; and in the choice of a conscientious and faithful teacher of our dear religion we could do no better.

With feelings of pride and of bliss, we saw at last the completion of our new cemetery, which we needed so badly, and in your name I express our thanks to those who furthered and hastened the completion of this excellent work. This was accomplished by the effective efforts of the board of road surveyors of both societies and by the ample means provided them by the Emanuel and Eureka Societies, as well as by fellow members.

I take the liberty of further proposing that the post of delegate to the old board of supervisors of street-laying be abolished, with the remark that we are always ready and willing to pay our share of the expenses to keep the old cemetery in good order. By doing so, we only do our duty to our friends and relatives whose mortal remains are at rest there.

Now that I have presented all the points of our history for the past year worth mentioning and have recommended for your kind attention the proposals that I believe a successful guidance of the congregation requires, I cannot refrain, in conclusion, from expressing my gratitude to the board of officers for the effective and capable assistance that they gave me. They were punctual at their meetings and always ready to assist me in carrying out the duties of my office. By doing so, they contributed much to making my work easier.

I, likewise, take advantage of this opportunity to express my thanks to the members of the seating-committee. They performed their difficult task well during the holidays and we have to thank, in part, their effective and prudent management for the order and decorum that prevailed during services as well as their sound judgment that so great a sum was obtained for the seats.

My thanks also to the ladies who assisted so cheerfully and readily in the choir. I take the liberty of proposing that suitable presents be given them: they were always ready and zealous to assist us in glorifying our religious services and richly deserve our acknowledgment.

Finally, it gives me pleasure to be able to tell you that the harmony and concord that has so long prevailed among us was little disturbed. There was, it is true, a difference of opinion with respect to the laws and regulations as well as to the kind and manner of religious service as introduced among us a little while ago—a difference of opinion that has still not been resolved. But there is no doubt that we, although under obligation to respect the wishes of the minority, for that very reason conscientiously have in view—and this is just what all friends of progress and reform demand—an impartial critical examination of the new kind of religious service and worship and an acquaintance with the manner of it and its success. And I am now convinced that after this has been attained nothing can further disturb the harmonious feelings which fraternal members cherish for each other. That this will be fulfilled is my deepest wish and most ardent desire as well as that Emanu-El may take a worthy place among the foremost sister congregations of the United States. Very truly yours, Heinrich Seligmann, president.

This congregation is at present the largest and richest in California and may well be included among the great congregations of America.

The French members of the congregation are distinguished particularly by their wealth and charity. I mention some names that they may be remembered as worthy of honor, without any reflection upon those I do not mention: Lazard Freres; Leopold Cohen and family; Godchaux; Isaac Levy, the brother of my friend, Daniel, and his family; L. Tichner from Bavaria, an extremely charitable man, and his brother-in-law, Heller.

Shomrai Shaboth Congregation

This congregation consists of about thirty members, almost all Russians or Poles. They consider it an indispensable duty to keep the seventh day sacred and to worship their God in the good old way of their forefathers.

They have a spacious hall. Here services are held on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays, in addition to fast days and festivals.