It is 1875. Eighteen businessmen form the First Hebrew Congregation of Oakland. In January of the following year, the synagogue meets to select officers and adopt a set of by-laws. The original members are immigrants from Germany, Hungary and Poland, reflecting the variety of nationalities who came to California. Two years later the congregation builds its first home, at 14th and Webster. It is large enough to hold 500 people. While services are along Orthodox lines, some reforms are evident; for instance, the sanctuary has no partition separating the men and women. In 1881 the congregation hires its first rabbi, Meyer Solomon Levy. He remains for a decade, before moving to San Francisco.
Taking a quick look backward, Jews settled in Oakland during the Gold Rush of the 1850s. They opened a wide variety of businesses, several of which prospered. The city's first Jewish institution was the Hebrew Benevolent Society, which purchased a Torah scroll and a Shofar during the Civil War. In 1865 it purchased two acres in the Mountain View Cemetery. That remains the core of the Temple's Home of Eternity cemetery.
In 1885 the first synagogue was destroyed by fire (one courageous member saved the Torah scrolls). Soon after, the congregation built a new home nearby, at 13th and Clay. The Rabbi and the women of the congregation helped by holding a Grand Fair which raised a whopping $3700 toward construction. Rabbi Levy was also committed to Jewish education. Soon after arriving, he asked the school district to excuse the Jewish children during the High Holy Days. The Superintendent went further, and directed the teachers not to hold examinations on the Jewish holidays.
Oakland was the childhood home of several notable Jews during Rabbi Levy's time. Rabbi Judah Magnes was raised in the city until he left for an illustrious career in New York and Israel. Gertrude Stein also grew up in the congregation and attended its Sabbath School as a girl. And Rae Frank, the first woman to preach from a synagogue pulpit, was a teacher in the religious school in the 1880s.
Oakland was prosperous from the 1880s until World War 1. The Jewish population grew, and the synagogue was home to several important local families. The Kahn brothers and Abraham Jonas were among the city's civic leaders, and led the commercial growth of downtown. In 1895 the synagogue moved its building to 12th and Castro, near the neighborhood where the members had moved.
In 1891 Rabbi Levy moved to San Francisco. The following year the synagogue hired Marcus Friedlander as its rabbi. Friedlander was a moderate who moved slowly toward the Reform movement. In the 1880s the synagogue had voted to create a mixed choir and purchase an organ. It remained observant in style, however, until the members accepted a reform prayer book in 1896. After 1900, Oakland's growing population of Russian, Polish and Hungarian Jews meant the addition of new synagogues: Beth Jacob and Beth Abraham. The new congregations helped push First Oakland toward more change. It joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and adopted the Reform movement's Union Prayer Book in about 1910.
After 1910 the congregation's leaders once again decided to move. In September 1914 its new home, at 28th and Webster was dedicated. The Ladies' Auxiliary once again contributed a large sum. Their gift allowed the temple to purchase a new organ with more than 900 pipes. Over the front entrance, between Corinthian columns and under an elliptical dome, is an inscription from Isaiah, " My House shall be a House of Prayer for All Peoples." The guests at the opening included Rabbis from across the nation.. The building was called "Temple Sinai." The synagogue has been known by that name ever since.
Unfortunately, however, a combination of events (including World War 1) forced the synagogue to reduce its program. In order to pay the mortgage, Rabbi Friedlander was released from his contract. While a new rabbi, Harvey Franklin, was hired in 1917, and the mortgage was paid off in the early 1920s, the Temple continued to struggle.
In 1921 Rabbi Franklin was replaced by Rabbi Rudolph Coffee. Coffee, a cousin of Rabbi Judah Magnes, had been raised in Oakland but studied in the East. A powerful speaker, he used his sermons to comment on the issues of the day. He committed himself and the Temple to causes on both the national and local levels. His passions included opposition to the Death Penalty and Prohibition. He also responded to the growing antisemitism in the nation. By 1933, though, the Great Depression and other factors led to Rabbi Coffee's resignation.
The new young Rabbi, William Stern, was a dramatic change from his predecessor. He had grown up in San Francisco before attending Hebrew Union College. Unlike the stiff and righteous Coffee, though, Stern was "a regular guy," who smoked cigars and played poker. From the pulpit he was an enemy of antisemitism in all of its forms. He also reminded the congregation that they should remain proud of their heritage, through the dark years of the Depression and World War II. He and his wife Rae were personally active in a variety of Jewish and community organizations. While he was not an early Zionist, he became a supporter of Israel in 1948 and after. Rabbi Stern was also committed to interfaith outreach, and met with city leaders as a force for progress. Under his leadership the congregation emerged from its troubles and became a force in the community at large. Reflecting this new strength was the new Religious School building, which was dedicated in early 1948. Rabbi Stern, congregants recall, would greet the families by name as they came in the door.
Rabbi Stern's sudden death in December 1965 was a blow to the congregation. The new Rabbi, Samuel Broude, had a more traditional background. He had served under Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld at Congregation Anshe Chesed in Cleveland. Rabbi Broude arrived at Temple Sinai as the Vietnam War was growing. Seeing the conflict as a moral issue, he spoke passionately and often against American involvement in far-off Southeast Asia. Rabbi Broude also took part in local Civil Rights marches, challenging Oakland's Jews to correct racism. Within the congregation, too, there were important issues. Though Rabbi Stern had performed intermarriage ceremonies, Rabbi Broude did not, and he brought the congregation to his side. In the 1960s the Temple purchased land in the Oakland Hills with the thought that it would move to a new facility. Rabbi Broude, however, convinced the members that it would make a powerful statement to remain in Downtown Oakland.
When Rabbi Broude retired in 1989, Temple Sinai's next Rabbi was Steven Chester. Rabbi Chester had been among the first group of Reform Rabbis to move significantly back into traditional Jewish practice. More Hebrew in the service, a vibrant musical program led by Cantor Ilene Keys, and other practices have been increasingly part of the Temple's style. In the early 1990s a preschool was established, teaching young children and their families Jewish values and social skills in a rich environment. Rabbi Chester also took on an active role in the Oakland Coalition of Congregations, which unites clergy of all faiths in issues of common concern. Under his leadership the synagogue became both a catalyst for change and a place that responds.
Since 1998 the Temple has had three Associate and Assistant Rabbis: Andrea Berlin, Suzanne Singer, and Jacqueline Mates-Muchin. The synagogue assisted dozens of congregants who lost their homes in the Oakland Hills fire in 1991. Since the late 1990s Temple Sinai has undertaken numerous Social Action projects, including an award-winning Literacy Program in Oakland's public schools. The Rabbis and congregants have taken part in a wide variety of other community activities. The Sanctuary has also been renovated, including much-needed structural improvements and earthquake reinforcement.
In 2006 Temple Sinai embarked on an ambitious project to expand and modernize. The synagogue raised over $12 million to create a new campus. Groundbreaking took place in October 2008, 95 years to the day after work began on the sanctuary. The new facility opened in the summer of 2010; it is named in honor of Rabbi Chester and his wife Leona. Rabbi Chester retired in June 2011, after 22 years as Temple Sinai's spiritual leader, and was succeeded by Rabbi Andrew Straus.
With a population that has grown from 550 in 1990 to nearly 1000 member families today, Temple Sinai remains a vibrant contributor to the life of Oakland and a vital part of its members' lives.