|Oral History Interviews (Audio)
With members of Stockton’s Jewish Community* who were in Europe during World War II.
|History (written in 2001):
The City of Stockton, named for Commodore Robert F. Stockton, the second American military commander of California, was founded in 1846 by Charles F. Weber, a native of Germany, but by then a Mexican citizen.
The discovery of gold by James Marshall in the American River in 1848 and the subsequent rush for gold, brought hordes of people to California from all parts of the United States and from many parts of the world. Not surprisingly, a portion of these 49ers, as well as some of the later arrivals, were adventurous Jews coming either from the eastern part of this country or from Europe.
Somewhere between 200 and 300 Jews came to Stockton, which was referred to as the gateway to the Southern mines because it was the main supplier of goods for mines between the Merced River and the Mokulumne River. Among these first Jewish arrivals were Isaac Zacharias, who opened a clothing store in 1849; J. Rosenbaum, owner of the city’s first bookstore; and clothing merchant Bernard Frankenheimer.
An 1851 Jewish calendar mentions a “Benevolent Society”, called Ryhim Ahoovim (Loving Friends) as being in existence in Stockton. Thus, the Jewish community had organized by 1850; Temple Israel tradition says that the society was founded in the latter months of 1849.
Regardless of the exact date, by 1851 the society had acquired a cemetery site on Union Street, the land having been donated by the generous Charles Weber. This cemetery is the oldest Jewish cemetery in continuous operation west of the Rocky Mountains, and is operated by the current congregation.
In 1851, even though there was no formal congregation, the Jewish community celebrated the High Holy Days at the Corinthian Theater, and Jewish-owned businesses closed down for the holiday. The next year also saw the Corinthian being used, but Yom Kippur services were held at the Odd Fellows Hall. Without a formal congregation, and taking into account conditions in early California, it is extremely doubtful that Stockton’s Jewish community had a Rabbi lead its services. These services were probably led by one or more of those in attendance.
The year 1855 saw the formal organization of the first congregation, when on April 22, Simon R. Rosenthal called the Israelites of Stockton together. After considerable discussion, a Congregation was formed under the name of Ryhim Ahoovim and a committee of five was appointed to draw up a constitution and by-laws and to report back as soon as possible. A week later, on April 29, the committee gave its report, which was amended and then adopted; Stockton’s Jewish congregation officially came into being. The first officers were elected, and included, probably to no one’s surprise, the chief organizer, Simon R. Rosenthal, as president.
Early Temple historians ignored the benevolent society, causing some controversy about the actual date of Temple Israel’s organization. From later writings, however, it would appear that the benevolent society was transformed into the Congregation by keeping the same name, but with a more formal organization and structure. The Congregation was small enough at first that it considered only renting a room and fashioning it as a synagogue. A committee was appointed to subsequently report about the costs of renting and arranging a room to meet the Congregation’s needs. The Congregation rejected this idea and, instead of renting, decided to build a place for public worship. A subscription was started to raise the necessary money, thus creating Temple Israel’s first of many building fund drives. Once more, Stockton’s founder, Charles M. Weber, who proved to be generous to all religious denominations found in Stockton, stepped in and donated a 100-foot square lot on the south side of Miner, between Hunter Street and El Dorado Street. It was on this site that Stockton’s first synagogue was built. The structure was built of wood, with a brick foundation measuring fifty feet by thirty-five feet. The cost was $2650. The lumber had to be shipped around Cape Horn since there were no sawmills in the area, and was unloaded at the Stockton waterfront, from where it was hauled to the building site by congregational members trying to save the hauling cost. The building was completed August 28, 1855, only four months after the creation of the congregation itself.
The following Friday, September 7, 1855, the synagogue was formally dedicated before an audience of both Jews and non-Jews with services conducted by Reverend (Rabbi) Julius Eckman of San Francisco. The establishment of the Congregation and the erection of the synagogue was quite an accomplishment for a group that consisted of only forty-three members, and who conducted their own services. This Stockton milestone was noteworthy enough to merit an article in the Jewish monthly periodical, the Occident, published in Philadelphia. This article was later reprinted in the prominent Jewish paper, the American Israelite, which was distributed from Cincinnati.
The first building only lasted about eight years because after completion it was discovered that the rear of the lot was under water a good deal of the time. Even more disconcerting was that during the flood of 1861-62 the floor of the synagogue was under two feet of water. As a result of this flooding, the original lot was sold, and the building was moved physically to a new location on a lot purchased on the east side of Hunter Street, between Lindsay and Fremont, but this time set three feet off the ground. In 1866 a one-room Sunday school was added at the rear of the synagogue, with two more rooms added in later years. This building was used as Stockton’s synagogue until 1905.
The first known Constitution and By-laws was published by the Congregation in 1866. One of the provisions was that the mode of worship was to conform to the Minhag Poland (the ritual of the Polish [Orthodox] Jews). Regardless of the ritual to be followed, the Congregation had no regular religious leader until 1876. Services were conducted either by members of the congregation or part-time cantors who primarily led services for the High Holy Days or stayed for just a short period of time. The congregation remained small, with forty-two members in 1866 and thirty-five members in 1873 when H. Lowenthal served as the part-time cantor.
In 1876, the Congregation made Herman Davidson its cantor, a position he was to hold for twenty years. Although not ordained, out of necessity he also performed various rabbinical functions. He performed them well enough so as to be referred to as Rabbi Davidson and Cantor-Rabbi Davidson. Davidson was born in 1846 in the Russian village of Kapulya, Gubernia Minsk. His father was a cantor, and saw to it that his son was trained in the Hebrew liturgy. Because of his fine baritone voice, Davidson was asked to and did join a touring opera company that traveled throughout Western Europe and eventually came to the United States. In the process he changed his name from Kantorowitz to Davidson, and also managed not to be conscripted into the Russian Army. As the troop reached Texas, intending to enter into Mexico, Davidson balked at entering a country where people regularly wore guns. He left the troop and headed for San Francisco where he made friends with some local rabbis. One of them, possibly Rabbi S. Bettelheim, having heard that the Stockton congregation was looking for a rabbi, proposed that Davidson go to this inland port city for the 1876 High Holy Days. At first Davidson demurred, but since he had all the necessary qualifications and needed a job, he went to Stockton and stayed there.
Davidson’s first professional appearance in Stockton was probably in July at the Centennial Service for the one hundredth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. By the first of the next year Davidson was fully accepted by the Congregation. He probably had to make adjustments of his own because he had been trained as an Orthodox cantor by his father, an Orthodox cantor himself, but there were some distinctly non-Orthodox elements present even though the Temple was committed to follow Orthodox observance. These non-traditional elements included use of the organ on the Sabbath and the High Holy Days to accompany a choir which itself was made up of both sexes as well as non-Jews; male and female congregants sat together; Cantor Davidson did not himself keep Kosher; and Jewish businesses did not close on Saturdays. All of these practices are neither condoned not tolerated among truly Orthodox Jews.
The Temple maintained itself for the next decade, until 1886, when poor business conditions in Stockton affected the Temple. At this point in time only the members of the board of trustees were paying their dues. The other members of this small Congregation, with only one or two exceptions, evaded their dues by claiming “dull business”. As a result, the congregation could not afford Cantor Davidson, so he took the opportunity to go to Europe and visit his family in Russia, particularly his aged parents. On his return to California, he spent some time as cantor for a congregation in San Francisco before returning to Stockton at a reduced salary.
Except for the Hebrew School conducted by the Cantor, no provisions were made for Jewish children. The Sunday School built on the Hunter Street site seems not to have been used in later years since both previous temple historians wrote that the first modern Sunday School of Temple Israel began in 1891. The initial enrollment was twenty-seven students, but this number increased; fifty-seven attended the first term, and forty one the second.
This organization, or reorganization, of the Sunday school was the first step toward reform in the Congregation. However, attendance in Sunday school was so irregular and fell off to such an extent that in 1895 teachers were forced to dismiss class because of poor attendance. Problems in the Sunday school reflected disaffection in the Congregation as a whole.
Orthodoxy Changes to Reform
Twentieth Century Growth
The changes of 1896 also brought to the fore the question of acquiring a new place of worship for Temple Israel. In 1900, a new building fund was established, and money raised early on through fundraisers sponsored by three groups. The first group, the Hebrew Ladies’ Benevolent Society, raised over $500. This group which was originally organized in 1868 with twenty charter members, and reconstituted in 1900, was the forerunner of today’s Sisterhood. The History of San Joaquin County, California noted that in 1868 the Society had $800 in property and that it kept no account of the money spent for charitable purposes. The aforementioned $500, plus money raised by the Busy Bee Fair and the Young Ladies’ Entertainment, and money from the Temple’s general fund, totaled $1500. The next year, 1901, the Hebrew Ladies Auxiliary was organized and it donated $1000 earned from a festival it sponsored, raising the building fund’s worth to $2500.
In 1902, at a congregational meeting, the chairman of the building fund committee said that $6500 was needed for a new structure and another $1500 for furnishings. A call for pledges was made and within four minutes $1200 was raised. These were all considerable amounts for the time. Additional money was raised by various means, and by the 1904 annual meeting, enough money had been accumulated; the plans were approved, the building started, and on the fiftieth anniversary of the formal organization of the congregation Ryhim Ahoovim, the new building was dedicated on Hunter Street.
In 1906, keeping with its shift to Reform Judaism, the Congregation joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the association of North American reform congregations. Joining the Union meant that the Congregation would be able to secure spiritual leaders. But even with its new temple structure, the Congregation, now formally known as Ryhim Ahoovim-Temple Israel, had trouble attracting a rabbi who would stay. In the period 1901 to 1929, only two rabbis, Louis Kopald and Emmanuel Jack, stayed more than three years, and they lasted four years each. In order, they were, Elias Margolis, 1901-1903; Max Raisin, 1903-1904; [?] Fabre, 1904-1905; Emil Ellinger, 1906-1908; Louis J. Kopald, 1909-1913; Edgar F. Magnin, 1914-1915; Harry B. Franklin. 1916-1917; Emmanuel Jack, 1917-1921; Harry E. Wessel, 1923-1925; and Samuel Halperin, 1926-1929.
The most famous of these rabbis is undoubtedly Edgar F. Magnin. Magnin, a native of San Francisco, first served Stockton as a student rabbi for the 1913 High Holiday services. He performed so well that he was offered a regular position six months before his ordination. He returned to Stockton in 1914 as the regular rabbi, but stayed only to the end of 1915. Magnin moved to Congregation B’nai B’rith, later known as Wilshire Boulevard Temple, in Los Angeles, where he stayed for seventy years until his death in 1984. While in Stockton he paid a visit to Fresno, and while there, organized Temple Beth Israel for that city, a temple that still exists. He returned to Stockton in 1925 for the Congregation’s fiftieth anniversary, where he was the guest speaker at several events.
Another connection between Stockton and Fresno was David Greenberg, who served Stockton as a student rabbi in 1926, when Temple Israel was between rabbis. Greenberg later went to Fresno’s Temple Beth Israel as its spiritual leader, and he stayed until his retirement and then as rabbi emeritus.
An interesting note from the 1920s was a 1924 letter from the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, Stockton Klan No. 3, accompanying the donation of a bag of money, amount unknown, to the Temple. Part of this letter read, While we are a White, Gentile, Protestant Organization, we are always glad to be of some service to our Brothers of the Jewish Faith. The letter was signed by Otto B. Sparks, Kleagle of the Invisible Empire. In 1925 Temple Israel bought two lots at Madison and Willow Streets for the construction of a Jewish Community Center designed to serve the entire community. The old temple building was moved from Hunter Street to the new location, and covered with a brick veneer to blend in with the Community Center building. A few years later this old sanctuary was moved to American Street and a new one was built to take its place next to the Jewish Community Center. Money considerations precluded the immediate construction of these new facilities. A story in the Stockton Evening Record of January 18, 1927 noted that the Jewish Community Center was to cost $50,000, of which half had been raised by Jewish families up to that point. At a meeting to raise the rest of the needed money, Rabbi Samuel Halperin said that the Jewish Community Center would be to Jewish youth what the YMCA was to Christian youth. The same newspaper, in its issue of May 12, 1928, took note of the Center’s groundbreaking, and later covered the dedication on December 16 of that same year. The dedication featured an address by Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin, making another visit to Stockton. A September 19, 1930 article in the Stockton paper talked about the dedication of the moved and newly remodeled sanctuary and its $12,000 cost. The dedication also marked the installation of the newly ordained Rabbi J. Aaron Levy, who, unlike his short-tenured predecessors, continued on as the rabbi, except for service as a chaplain in World War II, until 1948. The article detailed Levy’s background, and also described the newly remodeled building. With the new facilities now in use, the temple, in 1931, sold its Hunter Street property to the United States Government for $7500. A Stockton Evening Record story of March 19, 1932 discussed the Jewish Community Center and its impact:
As the shadows of World War II approached, various members of the Congregation helped refugees from Hitler’s Germany settle in Stockton where they became valuable members of both the Stockton and Jewish communities. World War II itself saw many young men of the Congregation go to war, some not returning. Members of the Stockton Jewish community seeing service included Mel Corren, Al Corren, Morris Gartner, Herman Sapiro, Cyril Peletz, Marvin Peletz, and Louis Maltin. Rabbi Levy also was one of those to serve, as he took a leave from the congregation to become an Army chaplain at the end of October 1943. In Levy’s absence Rabbi Bernard Ehrenreich occupied the pulpit in 1944 and part of 1945; Rabbi Isaiah Zeldon completed the time until Rabbi Levy returned. Rabbi Zeldin was still here in November, 1945 when the Temple celebrated the 90th anniversary of the Congregation’s founding. An article in the Stockton Record provided a very brief history of the Congregation and quoted Zeldin who reported that in 1943 there were approximately 1200 Jews living in Stockton. One of the highlights of the celebration was to be an anniversary cake with ninety candles on it.
Post World War II Era
The aftermath of World War II not only brought Rabbi Levy back, but also involved the Temple on helping resettle more refugees from both Eastern Europe and Germany, a number of whom had spent the war in places like Japanese occupied Shanghai, China. This group too stayed and became part of the Stockton community. Aaron Levy did not long remain in Stockton after returning from the Army, leaving in 1948. He was replaced by Rabbi Joseph Gitin, who came to Stockton after a stint as a rabbi for Hillel, the national Jewish students’ organization. He, in turn, was replaced in 1950 by Rabbi William Sajowitz, who stayed for a five-year period. The next year, 1955-56, saw lay leadership conducting services since there was no rabbi. Finally stability came in 1956 when Rabbi Bernard Rosenberg came to Stockton from a position as rabbi in Tacoma, Washington, with a brief stopover in the Bay Area. In the twenty-one year period that Rosenberg was rabbi, Stockton’s population grew, particularly in the area north of the Calaveras River. Temple membership, reflecting the city’s growth, grew as well. In 1960, to accommodate this change, the Congregation bought three acres of land from the grandson of Captain Weber at the northwest corner of El Dorado Street and March Lane. Initially, schoolrooms and an office building were erected. The sanctuary was not finished until 1972, and was dedicated in December of the same year. Rosenberg was well known and respected throughout the entire Stockton community, as he combined his rabbinical duties with civic involvement and teaching Judaic Studies at the University of the Pacific. He had an interest in the history of the Temple, corresponding with various people and arranging for some historical materials to be stored at the UOP library. Rosenberg stayed in Stockton after his retirement in 1976, serving as Rabbi Emeritus as well as continuing with his academic work.
Rabbi Steven Chester replaced Rosenberg, serving until 1989. Chester’s years as rabbi here saw continued growth in the city, and matching growth in the Temple. However, towards the end of his tenure temple population fell from its peak as temple growth did not keep pace with the city’s growth. Chester continued Rosenberg’s civic involvement and assumed Rosenberg’s classes at UOP upon the latter’s death. When Chester left Stockton it was to take the pulpit of Temple Sinai in Oakland.
The period that Chester was in Stockton also saw an increase of Anti-Semitism in Russia, and as it did to help World War II refugees, Temple members once more came forward to aid those being oppressed. The Temple sponsored a number of Russian families, bringing them here and helping them started in the United States.
Rabbi Richard Shapiro, who came from the Denver area, replaced Chester, but only stayed three years. Like Rosenberg, Shapiro had an interest in history, and prepared an article based on the work of Bea Schwartz, long-time temple historian. This article was published in The Far Westerner, the quarterly journal published by the Stockton Corral of Westerners. Rabbi Selig Salkowitz, a retired rabbi from New York, served one year, 1992-1993, as interim rabbi. In the short period time he was here Salkowitz prepared more historical materials, conducting a number of interviews to prepare a file of oral histories.
In 1993 Rabbi Jason Gwasdoff became the spiritual leader of Stockton’s Temple Israel. Gwasdoff introduced a new element into the services as he expanded the use of music in the services, with both adult and children’s choirs. Gwasdoff continues on as rabbi, as he leads the Congregation into a new century and another 150 years for Temple Israel and the Stockton Jewish community.