August 20, 2019

Historical San Bernardino Synagogue Moves East

Southern California’s pioneer synagogue left San Bernardino in December, leaving organized Jewish life in the city without a communal focal point after one-and-a-half centuries.

Rabbis and members of Congregation Emanu El celebrated the first night of Chanukah as the final service at the old site in San Bernardino. After moving seven Torah scrolls, the congregation reconvened on the last night of the holiday at its new temporary quarters, 15 miles away in Redlands.

The main impetus for the move was a shift eastward of the Jewish population within San Bernardino County, which includes both the city bearing the same name and Redlands.

Emanu El also lost many members earlier when two large employers, Kaiser Steel and Norton Air Force Base, closed in the 1980s and 1990s. In addition, crime had increased in the synagogue’s neighborhood.

San Bernardino County, whose western border adjoins Los Angeles County, is 90 percent desert and seems an unlikely place to have nourished the first roots of organized Jewish life in Southern California.

The initial Jewish arrival in 1851 was the merchant Jacob Rich. He was strictly observant and always carried a Torah with him, which, scholars believe, may have been the first in the Southland and is still in Emanu El’s possession.

Rich arrived on a Mormon wagon train. Mormon pioneers again proved helpful when they donated a plot of land in 1860 for a Jewish cemetery, which continues to conduct burials today.

As more Jews followed in Rich’s footsteps, the nascent congregation met in private homes, clubhouses and at a Masonic temple, and celebrated its first Rosh Hashanah service in 1864.

“Until the 1930s, Emanu El was the only permanent synagogue between Pasadena and Phoenix,” said Emeritus Rabbi Hillel Cohn, who led Emanu El from 1963 to 2001.

Currently, there are an estimated 3,000 Jews in San Bernardino County, whose 21,160 square miles makes it the largest county in the continental United States and larger in size than each of the nation’s seven smallest states.

The synagogue is affiliated with the Reform movement, but its services lean toward more traditional observances. For the past eight years, Rabbi Douglas Kohn has served as spiritual leader.

Emanu El reached its peak membership in the 1980s with 600 families, but has since declined to between 200 to 250 families. Many of the current members represent the fifth generation of worshippers in their families.

In Redlands, Emanu El has settled in a space leased in an office building but plans to build a permanent structure next year on an adjacent plot of land.

The Press-Enterprise, a countywide daily newspaper, reported that Cohn and some members strongly opposed the move and felt that the decision was reached through deceptive maneuvering.

Opponents of the move also felt that the “abandonment” of the old synagogue will further hurt the city of San Bernardino, already hard hit economically.

Since its incorporation in 1854, the city has benefited from the active Jewish role in municipal, civic and economic enterprises.

Mayor Patrick Morris told the Press-Enterprise that the move is “a grievous loss of leadership in our community. Part of the wonderful mission of these faith leaders has been of civic engagement. They have been, in many ways, a touchstone of our moral conscience.”