Congregation Beth Israel is unique in the western United States as the only known synagogue that has occupied three separate buildings that are all still standing and continue to be in use today. The following is a short history of Beth Israel and each of its congregational homes. For a more detailed history see the online version of our 150th Anniversary History Book.
Congregation Beth Israel is San Diego’s oldest and largest Jewish congregation with roots dating to 1861 when San Diego was a frontier settlement. Jewish pioneers first came to San Diego in 1850 and, although very few in number, gathered each year to observe the High Holy Days. According to the late historian Henry Schwartz, San Diego Jewry, led by Old Town merchant Marcus Schiller, first met in 1861 to form the congregation they called Adath Yeshurun (Assembly of Israel). Beth Israel traces its origins back to the formation of Adath Yeshurun in 1861.
During the boom and bust economy of San Diego between the 1850s and 1886, Schiller worked to keep the Jewish community together. In 1871 he and others formed the first Hebrew Benevolent Society to assist the needy, attend to the sick and bury the dead. Schiller’s big opportunity came in 1886. Secure that enough Jews were in San Diego following the completion of a railroad line to the east, Schiller and others formally organized as Beth Israel (House of Israel) in January 1887. The group incorporated under the name Congregation Beth Israel in February 1887 for purposes of buying land to build a synagogue.
The First Synagogue
In 1889, the first Temple Beth Israel was erected at Second Avenue and Beech Street. It was used by the Congregation until 1926, when the Congregation moved to its second, larger building at Third and Laurel. In the 1970s, the original Temple Beth Israel was slated for demolition, but Past Beth Israel President Jim Milch together with many congregants and organizations worked to rescue it. The structure, which is now a San Diego Historical Site, was moved to Heritage Park in 1978. It is owned by the County of San Diego, is still known as Temple Beth Israel, and is used for weddings and gatherings.
The Second Synagogue
In recent years, Congregation Beth Israel outgrew the much beloved Temple Center at 3rd & Laurel.The second sanctuary and adjacent social hall were brought to fulfillment and dedicated by a congregation of fewer than 60 Jewish families. Third & Laurel, as it became known, occupied a full city block in downtown San Diego, a large portion of which comprised a school building built in the 1960’s and several small apartments. Once Beth Israel moved to its third and current location, the Congregation sold its former property. The former sanctuary, social hall and school building will continue to be used by a Jewish congregation, while the remainder of the block will be redeveloped for other uses.
Our Congregational Home
Beth Israel’s new temple, dedicated in October 2001. In 1993, Congregation Beth Israel purchased a three-acre site about 12 miles from the downtown location, in University City, just east of La Jolla. We broke ground in January 2000 and dedicated the Congregation’s new home in October 2001. Beth Israel’s current facility consists of five buildings totaling more than 65,000 square feet, twice the size of the previous site. Congregation Beth Israel is composed of nearly 1,200 households and 3,500 individuals who live throughout San Diego County. We maintain an active affiliation with the Union for Reform Judaism (formerly the Union of American Hebrew Congregations), the national Reform movement.
The Growth of Synagogues in San Diego
Until World War II, there were only three Jewish houses of worship in San Diego. As Beth Israel grew, some congregants, seeking a smaller congregation, formed their own congregation in 1960 called Temple Solel (not related to the current Temple Solel). In 1967, the two congregations merged back into one entity. Many other synagogues have been formed in San Diego in the intervening years, and today there are more than 30 congregations located throughout San Diego County. The Jewish community has grown continuously; it is estimated that there may be close to 100,000 Jewish people living in San Diego County today.
Beth Israel in Three Centuries Exhibit
Beth Israel In Three Centuries is an exhibition installed in three display cases in the Glickman-Galinson Sanctuary entry lobby at Beth Israel. It was prepared under the auspices of the San Diego Jewish Historical Society and features the story of the Congregation as viewed through our three “homes” spanning three centuries. Each display case contains historic photographs, documents and valuable papers related to each of our Congregation’s facilities: Second & Beech, built in the 1800s, Third and Laurel, built in the 1900s and Towne Centre Drive, built in 2000.
This exhibition was curated by Beth Israel historian Stan Schwartz, Jewish Historical Society of San Diego Archives Curator Laurel Schwartz, Archivist Bonnie Harris, History Planner Linda Canada and professional exhibit installer Karie Dzenkowski-Castillo, with assistance from Beth Israel Executive Director Emeritus Stuart Simmons, Debbie Simmons and other volunteers. Interested individuals or groups are invited to view the cases during regular hours of operation.