For more than 100 years, serving the San Diego Jewish Community
Tifereth Israel Synagogue was born in tumult, and over its first 100 years, controversies alternated with times of peace as the congregation defined and redefined itself. Sometimes there were struggles over matters of doctrine; at other times, personality clashes helped to shape the course of institutional Jewish life. Perhaps schisms are inevitable in American synagogues where congregations steer their own courses. Anyone who is dissatisfied is free to try to start up a new synagogue.
One still can visit the scene of the first schism, the place where the need for a separate congregation came clearly into focus for San Diego’s more traditionally-minded Jews. This is the building that served as San Diego’s first synagogue, a reform congregation known today as old Temple Beth Israel. No longer at its original location at Second and Beech streets, the restored Temple Beth Israel has stood in Heritage Park in Old Town San Diego since 1978 and is owned and operated by the County of San Diego.
But in response to Beth Israel’s being a “very advanced liberal congregation,” a minyan of men preferring more traditional forms of Jewish prayer held separate services utilizing the congregation’s Torah scrolls for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in 1905. A way had to be devised to share the sanctuary, as there was no separate room or chapel for an alternative minyan.
High Holy Day Services were conducted in two parts, with the more Orthodox members of the Congregation continuing to worship after the Reform service had ended, thus carrying out the traditional day-long observances. The Rosh Hashanah Services presented no problems. Things did not work out on Yom Kippur, however, as the Orthodox group was not finished with its morning prayers when the Reform Congregation came to worship. An argument ensued and the Orthodox minyan adjourned to the home of Elias Jacobson where they apparently completed their Services. It was clear that separate facilities for the two streams of Judaism were necessary.
A New Beginning
In February 1906, the group of traditionalists filed its articles of incorporation as “Congregation Tifereth Israel” with the state government. It said its purpose was “…to establish and maintain a place of religious worship at San Diego, California, according to the teachings of our religion; to purchase, lease, or otherwise acquire real estate sufficient to erect thereon a suitable building wherein to worship.”
The leaders of the congregation raised money for a permanent home, and the cornerstone of the new building on the east side of Eighteenth Street was laid May 20, 1917. The synagogue would be in Sherman Heights, one of the oldest neighborhoods of San Diego. The growing congregation drew on the downtown population of Eastern European laborers, shopkeepers and small businessmen. In 1936, Tifereth Israel Synagogue hired its first permanent rabbi. Rabbi Ephraim Seigel is still remembered today as a red-headed Englishman who also spoke Yiddish and Hebrew fluently.
The congregation thrived, and within two generations, the building on Eighteenth Street would not be large enough to serve its worshippers. In 1948 and in anticipation of a move, the young women of the synagogue formed the Tifereth Israel Synagogue Sisterhood to support the activities and goals of the synagogue while giving a voice to its women. Sisterhood continues its good work to this day.
Another move would have to be made. Leaders eyed the North Park area, home to a growing Jewish community. A new shul on 30th and Howard Streets would be built in the post-war years.
More than the building would change. Reflecting changes in its membership and also to appeal to younger families, the congregation allied itself with the Conservative movement. Tifereth Israel also recruited a new spiritual leader, and on September 19, 1948, Rabbi Monroe Levens delivered his first sermon at the dedication of the new sanctuary on Howard Street in North Park. President Harry Truman wrote, “Accept my very best wishes for a most successful dedication.”
A religious school was founded in 1949 despite overwhelming obstacles caused by inadequate space and equipment. There were no actual classrooms; rather, the sanctuary was divided into arbitrary sections for the various grade levels that filled the vast space with the escalating sounds of children. The Sunday School had 240 students and the Hebrew School had 65.
The United Synagogue Youth, the United Synagogue Juniors, and the Men’s Club also were formed in 1949. These organizations, along with the already thriving Sisterhood, provided a variety of activities for the congregation and its youth.
Many significant events marked the decade of the 1950s in the life of Tifereth Israel Synagogue. In January 1950, Tifereth Israel hosted the annual conference of the Southern California region of the Rabbinical Assembly of America. The rabbis met in San Diego to consider the problems facing Jewish life as a whole and in the Southern California region in particular.
At about this time, Cantor Joseph Cysner was retained as Tifereth Israel’s first permanent cantor. He organized a robust volunteer choir composed of both men and women, which was unique for the congregation. He also started the congregation’s first junior choir, which imbued the children of the synagogue with a lifelong love of Jewish music.
With such growth, plans were soon laid for the Tifereth Israel Center, a new building that would encompass schoolrooms, social halls, additional offices, a kosher kitchen, a library, and a gift shop. On Dec. 3, 1950, the groundbreaking for the Center took place.
The following year, preschool was created. The synagogue also added a religious high school department to its educational system. The Cantor’s Class met every Tuesday after choir rehearsal to provide an opportunity for synagogue youth to study the chanting of traditional prayers. The Young Jewish Couples Club was founded, later renamed simply the “Couples Club.”
Tifereth Israel Center was dedicated in August 1953 as a Jewish meeting place where spiritual, cultural, educational, and social needs all could be met within the traditional framework of the synagogue.
The remaining years of the decade were marked by the quadruple growth in synagogue membership, the construction of a new building, and Tifereth Israel Synagogue’s increasing presence in the local community.
The decade of the 1960s saw life at the synagogue relatively stable in the face of turbulent times. The Sisterhood, the Men’s Club, the Couples Club, and the USY/USJ chapters all flourished in good health.
But North Park was changing.
The shul “was sitting in an area of a declining Jewish population,” recalled Shalom Elcott, now chief executive officer for the Jewish Federation of Orange County who was hired in 1978 as Executive Director, assigned to the Capital Campaign and to help oversee construction of a new synagogue.
A Home for the 21st Century
A while some congregants had moved north to La Jolla, many others settled in Del Cerro and San Carlos. The congregation set its sights to the east, settling on Cowles Mountain, a moonscape of a site in the hills of San Carlos. In anticipation of the new home, a new leader came Tifereth Israel Synagogue: Rabbi Aaron Gold.
The ceremonial groundbreaking was held September 12, 1976. Construction began shortly thereafter and the synagogue took up temporary residence at the Masonic Lodge across the street.
The dedication on the new building was celebrated on June 2, 1979, following a procession up the hill from the Masonic Lodge to the new site. Congregants were awestruck. Then-Mayor Pete Wilson joined the ceremonies.
The Cowles Mountain site would include a sanctuary and a social hall, designed to accommodate 1,200 people for the High Holy Days, twice the number of the Howard Avenue shul.
Membership started to grow rapidly. More young people, couples with small children, were coming to shul. The Torah school experienced record enrollment. The synagogue expanded almost immediately to include an education wing and the library. The synagogue was THE place to be.
Tifereth Israel was attracting more than members. One of the biggest coups of recent years came when the synagogue landed the Jewish Community Center’s volunteer orchestra, which has since been renamed the Tifereth Israel Community Orchestra.
Rabbi Aaron Gold turned the leadership over to Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal in the 1990s. Reflecting national trends, the demographics in San Diego County and its Jewish community were again changing. Jewish families were growing older. Others moved to the North County. By last year, the membership, which had swelled so dramatically in the 1980s, returned to the levels equal to those when the Cowles Mountain Boulevard building opened.
In October of 2003, the synagogue itself was threatened during the historic Cedar Fire. The blaze began outside Ramona on October 25, but by the next morning, strong gusts of Santa Ana winds had whipped it miles to the west, into Scripps Ranch and Tierrasanta, and threatening San Carlos. For the next several days, the massive Cedar, Paradise, and Otay fires would burn nearly 400,000 acres. The shul was left untouched.
But challenges remained. In May of 2004, the San Diego Jewish Academy’s original campus at Tifereth Israel closed its doors for good, just a quarter century after it had opened. The remaining 52 children from the East County campus were given seats at the gleaming new SDJA campus in Carmel Valley. It was further evidence of the migration to the north. The last few years, however, have brought relative stability. Tifereth Israel remains the only Conservative synagogue serving the East County and one of the oldest synagogues in California. Rabbi Rosenthal noted the congregation is more diverse, more middle-class, more traditional, with a younger leadership, than in years past. In some ways, it is stronger. “It stands for a certain view of the world, a certain view of Judaism… These people who have remained with us are more committed.”
Volunteers are plentiful and generous. Said Rabbi Rosenthal, “When I first came here, only one person could read the Torah. Now we have several who can lead a service.”
Auxiliary groups are thriving and programming is innovative and dynamic. The congregation has refurbished its facility and is strengthening its endowment.
The Membership Committee is reaching out to the unaffiliated Jews, many of whom live in the East County, a short drive from Tifereth Israel. The Committee has invited families to events such as the summer Pray at the Park Shabbat Services, designed to show how membership can enrich their Jewish experience. And to help a new family find a meaningful place at Tifereth Israel, the Board is initiating a mentoring program wherein an established family with similar interests encourages new members to engage in synagogue life.
Tifereth Israel Synagogue recently celebrated its centennial. The occasion gave us an opportunity to reflect on our history. It has been a remarkable journey and we have formed a unique community. Through the diligence of the men, women and generations of families that have supported Tifereth Israel over the years, we have evolved and changed while holding our traditions close to our hearts. We have much to be proud of and, as we face the future, we look forward to the new challenges ahead.