USA: San Leandro's "Little Shul": California's Oldest Extant Synagogue
by Samuel D. Gruber
(ISJM) I recently wrote about San Diego's former Temple Israel, built in 1889, then sold in 1926, and later moved and restored as an historic monument in 1978. A similar story can be told further north in San Leandro in the Bay area, where the small synagogue, also built in 1889-1890, was also rescued in the 1970s. A difference though is that the former First Hebrew Congregation of San Leandro is now located on an existing synagogue premises and is regularly used for worship and educational purposes. The building is preserved and so, for the most part, is it original function as a house of worship and Jewish community. A third solution found in the West (and elsewhere) is restoring an old synagogue in situ for cultural and/or religious use, such as carried out for the 1884 synagogue in Leadville, Colorado, which opened as a Museum in 2008.
According to Cindy Simons, president of the San Leandro Historical Society:
For more than half a century, Sunday school classes and religious services were held in the Little Shul, which attracted Jewish families from throughout the East Bay. In 1947 and 1948, the now expanded congregation hired a full-time rabbi, adopted its present name Temple Beth Sholom (House of Peace), purchased a new site on Dolores Street, and constructed a new and larger synagogue. In 1952, the Little Shul was purchased by the First Baptist Church and then was sold again in the late 1950s to the Judah Magnes Museum of Berkeley. It was never used for museum purposes, but was rented out as a church meeting place and later a dwelling. [Cindy Simons “San Leandro's 'Little Shul' East Bay's Oldest Surviving Synagogue?” San Leandro Patch (April 7, 2013)]
San Leandro Historical Photograph and Document Collection, courtesy of the San Leandro Public Library.
The Magnes Museum purchase was what might term "passive preservation." The new ownership protected the building from change or demolition without review but did not actively promote it restoration or its Jewish identity. The Magnes Museum bought the building, and bought time for its long term protection. In 1970 the Museum found a solution - and sold the building to Temple Beth Sholom, for successor congregation, for $1. Beth Sholom arranged to move the building, now called the "Little Shul," to its own synagogue site where it was restored and located behind the main synagogue on Dolores Street. Unlike the more expensive San Diego project, this move and restoration led by Coleman Herts, cost the congregation $23,000, raised from private donations (Temple Beth Sholom Bulletin, Dec, 1970).
The lessons of both San Diego and San Leandro need to be taken to heart as architects and a Jewish community gets ready to move another 19th-century wood frame synagogue - that of Brenham, Texas.