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April 1, 2015
Contemporary Jewish Museum

The Guide to Jewish Heritage in San Francisco

Jewish entrepreneurs arrived in San Francisco in the midst of the Gold Rush and through the centuries they have left a legacy of philanthropy and major cultural institutions here. From Levi Strauss, whose family gifted Stern Grove to the city, to Adolph Sutro whose home once occupied Sutro Heights, their names live on. 

Downtown • Mission

The Contemporary Jewish Museum (736 Mission St., 655-7800) opened in spring 2008 in its new home around the corner from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The 63,000-square-foot museum was designed by internationally renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, who also designed the Jewish Museum in Berlin and was master planner for the World Trade Center memorial site. Housed within the museum is Wise Sons Deli, who serves a delicious pastrami sandwich and started the migration of Jewish food back into the city. They also have a location in the Mission.

The Holocaust Center of Northern California is now relocated to The Jewish Family and Children’s Services that is a paean amid the pain of Holocaust memories. It sponsors lectures, films and commemorations, programs that make the Holocaust a platform for promoting tolerance. Its university-quality research library includes the 500-volume Yizkor book collection, which documents life in the vanquished Jewish communities of Europe and represents two-thirds of all such memorial books in existence, an invaluable source of genealogical information. In the collection are rare books, first editions and out-of-print volumes, from minutiae to the monumental (2150 Post St; 449-1200).

The Mission District is a nearby neighborhood that holds some particular interest for the Jewish traveler. One is historic, the other contemporary; both are in flux.

The Levi Strauss Factory, built in 1906, replaced two factories lost in the great earthquake and fire. Strauss, who had established a San Francisco branch of his family’s New York cloth company in 1853, began manufacturing denim work pants for Gold Rush miners, unknowingly launching a durable and enduring clothing style. His descendants still own the company, though not the building. The red brick and wood structure, which originally accommodated 1,500 sewing machine operators, made denims until 2002. In 2005, the company sold the building to San Francisco Friends School, which opened its K-8 Quaker school there in 2008

Pacific Heights to the Pacific

Start your day at the Haas-Lilienthal House (2007 Franklin St.; 441-3004). Operated by the San Francisco Heritage, this stunningly preserved 1886 Queen Anne Victorian was built for wholesale grocer William Haas, a great-nephew of Levi Strauss and patriarch of a philanthropic family that continues to share its wealth. The lavishly appointed house offers a peek at late 19th century upper middle-class Jewish tastes. Docent tours Wednesday and Saturday noon-3 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.-4 p.m.

Congregation Sherith Israel (2266 California St.; 346-1720) was founded April 8, 1851, along with Congregation Emanu-El. Together, they have the two longest-practicing Jewish congregations in San Francisco. The current Congregation Sherith Israel building, consecrated in 1905, made it through the 1906 earthquake unscathed and was used briefly as a temporary city hall. A registered landmark, the temple’s entrance has a massive stepped arch that curves above a 12-cusped rose window. One stained glass window of the sanctuary depicts Jewish themes against a backdrop of the American West, Yosemite’s Half Dome.

The Jewish Community Center of San Francisco (3200 California St.; 346-6040) is the oldest on the West Coast. Built in 1932, the center was razed in 2002 and replaced by an ultra-modern facility twice as large, though some original Art Deco features were preserved. This beehive of services and resources — gym and pool, dance studios, classrooms, library, performance hall, Dayenu Gift Shop — buzzes with programs designed to preserve Jewish life. Open to all.

The 30,000-volume Jewish Community Library (1835 Ellis, 567-3327), operated by the Bureau of Jewish Education, is a repository for anything in print that touches on Jewish content from religion to trash fiction. Closed Friday, Saturday and holidays.

The current temple of Congregation Emanu-El (2 Lake St.; 751-2535) is the third site for this congregation, whose earliest members were pioneers of America’s mid-19th century westward migration. Consecrated in 1926, a year later the temple was called the finest piece of architecture in Northern California by the American Institute of Architects. Its Near Eastern look is a fusion of Byzantine-Roman and early medieval traditions. Enter the temple through the courtyard, which features a mosaic-embellished fountain. The main focus of the temple interior is the ark, covered by a pyramidal roof supported by green columns, and a magnificent 4,500-pipe organ. The temple also houses the Jacob Voorsanger Library, a fine collection of rare works of Judaica.

The Richmond District in the northwest corner of the city — north of Golden Gate Park and west of Park Presidio Blvd. — is the closest San Francisco can come to a Jewish neighborhood today with its thriving community of mainly Russian Jews. 

The House of Bagels (5030 Geary Blvd.; 752-6000), open 6 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, offers 14 flavors of bagels — including jalapeño — with seven spreads, and hamentashen cookies year round plus pastry ones for Purim.

George Segal’s “Holocaust Memorial” in Lincoln Park

Outside the Legion of Honor is George Segal’s “Holocaust Memorial” in Lincoln Park, a powerful sculpture depicting emaciated bodies in a heap. It was controversial when installed in 1984 and continues to evoke anguish. A prison-garbed figure stands nearby, his back to the horror, staring out in wistful irony at the idyllic entrance to San Francisco Bay (34th Ave & Clement St, Lincoln Park.; 863-3330).

Precious metals mogul Adolph Sutro, of the legendary Comstock Lode fame, bought about 100 acres at the northwest edge of San Francisco in the 1880s, including a bluff overlooking the Cliff House and Seal Rock. There he built a mansion and gardens with abundant statuary and fountains, a railway and a saltwater bathhouse adjoining the Cliff House. A popular destination at the turn of the century, by the 1930s Sutro Baths had closed and the gardens had fallen into ruins. Fire later destroyed the mansion and the bathhouse. The National Park Service took over both properties and has been gradually restoring them. Sutro Heights Park, at the end of Point Lobos Avenue, is a magical place that offers a spectacular view of the ocean.

East Bay Destinations

The Magnes Collections of Jewish Art and Life (previously called Judah l. Magnes Museum) has a permanent collection of ceremonial objects, coins and medals, Holocaust artifacts, Torah binders and a 7,500-book library. Also on site is the Western Jewish History Center, an archive and research center that preserves original manuscripts and institutional records from 13 Western states, some from the Gold Rush (2121 Allston Way. 510-643-2529). \

For calendar information and local expert recommendations on all of San Francisco’s arts and cultural activities, visit www.sfarts.org which features more than 1,000 arts events in its database along with curated arts highlights and feature articles. SFArts.org is accessible on iPads, iPhones and other mobile devices. 

Explore 10 self-guided tours designed to immerse visitors in San Francisco’s culture, rich ethnic heritage and world-class art. 

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