Jewish life in the East Bay

isaacs book

The Judah L. Magnes Museum is tucked away on Russell Street, its stately brick mansion barely visible from the road. Yet the 50-year old museum has the third largest collection of Judaica and fine art in the country and is internationally recognized as an outstanding museum.

Take the Magnes, multiply it many times over, and you have a description of Jews in Berkeley: they are everywhere, are doing amazing things, but their deeds and accomplishments are often hidden.

Author Frederick Isaacs hopes to peel back the veil hiding Jewish life in the East Bay. In his new book, Jews of Oakland and Berkeley, Isaacs tells the rich history of Jewish settlement from the years after the Gold Rush to the years of the Internet rush. The book, published by Arcadia Publishing, has close to 185 historic and contemporary photographs.

Being a Jew in Berkeley as well as the rest of California has long been different than being Jewish on the east coast, said Isaacs, the former head librarian for the Bureau of Jewish Education in San Francisco.


“California has been a laissez-faire kind of society,” said Isaacs. “People have been able to be Jewish or not be Jewish here by their own choice where that was not necessarily the case in other parts of the country where communities were less open.”

Some interesting tidbits from Isaac’s book:
•    Jews settled in the East Bay in the 1860s. They created a Jewish cemetery in 1865, buying a chunk of land at the base of Mountain View Cemetery and naming it “Home of Eternity.”
•    The first synagogue in the East Bay was the First Hebrew Congregation (now Temple Sinai of Oakland,) which opened in 1875.  The first to open in Berkeley was the Berkeley Hebrew Center, which began in 1909 and is now known as Beth Israel.
•    Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger of Temple Emanu-el in San Francisco created the Semitics Department at the University of California at Berkeley in 1894. It was one of the first Middle East study programs in the country,

Silver Anniversary dinner for Beth Israel in 1949
Silver Anniversary dinner for Beth Israel in 1949

There are three synagogues in Berkeley – Beth Israel, Beth El, and Netivot Shalom, as well as a Chabad House on College Avenue and Aquarian Minyan, a congregation without a permanent building. All three of the temples have constructed new buildings in recent years, said Isaacs. While synagogues play an important role in Jewish life in Berkeley, many other Jews are unaffiliated with temples and express their Jewishness by immersing themselves in Jewish cultural activities, said Isaacs. In the last 15 years, attendance at the Jewish Film Festival and the Jewish Music Festival has skyrocketed. The Jewish Community Center of the East Bay offers a preschool, after school care, and numerous classes and lectures.

A short list of important Jewish cultural landmarks in Berkeley:
•    The Judah L Magnes Museum
•    Afikomen Bookstore
•    Saul’s Delicatessen
•    Noah’s Bagels (Its founder, Noah Alper, was Jewish. He sold the chain, which is no longer kosher.)
•    Cody’s Books (Even though it is defunct, it played a critical role in creating Jewish identity. Its long-time owner, Andy Ross, is Jewish.) Every year the store would display dozens of different Haggadot for Passover, said Isaacs
•    Hillel and Lehrhaus Judaica


Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Berkeleyside. Email: frances@berkeleyside.com.