By Archivist Stan Schwartz
Engraved on the corner stone for the 3rd & Laurel synagogue: Beth Israel organized 1876. In the program for an event just prior to the 1926 building dedication, someone wrote: “It is just fifty years ago that a small band of loyal Israelites met to lay the foundation of a congregation in Israel”. From that time on, the founding of the congregation was assumed to be 1876.
Based on this date, in 1952, Beth Israel celebrated its 75th anniversary. But, the date, 1876 was a guess. This is confirmed in the anniversary history book: “There is no record left to us of the exact moment, or day, or month, or even year, that Congregation Beth Israel of San Diego came into being as such”.
In fact, there was a record of the founding. A group met to organize Congregation Adath Yeshurun in 1861. Though there were no newspapers in San Diego at that time, the event was recorded in the Jewish newspaper of San Francisco, The Weekly Gleaner, in a letter from chairman Marcus Schiller.
As president of the Jewish Historical Society of San Diego, I had come across 1970's correspondence from Norton Stern, a prolific author on Western Jewry and also from Beth Israel member Henry Schwartz, historian of San Diego Jewry, to the Beth Israel board and president, explaining the incorrect founding date. No action was taken until...
In 1996 Rabbi Jonathan Stein, wanted to celebrate Beth Israel’s 120th anniversary based on the 1876 date. I took this occasion to persuade the congregation to use its actual founding date. When I showed Rabbi Stein the correspondence from Stern and Schwartz, he was thrilled, especially when he learned that CBI is the oldest congregation in Southern California.
Building on the work of previous historians, I established that Adath Yeshurun and Beth Israel are the same congregation. When Adath Yeshurun, Assembly of Israel, planned to build a synagogue, they reorganized in 1887 and changed their name to Beth Israel, House of Israel. Founding president, Marcus Schiller remained in office for forty years.
Rabbi Stein sent this documentation to Michael A. Meyer at HUC, a professor of Jewish History, for his opinion, and he agreed with 1861 as the founding date, making Beth Israel 150 years old today.