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San Diego Jews form a warm community in a warm city — and have Wisconsin links
March 1st, 2013
In the number of Jewish people and of Jewish institutions and restaurants, Los Angeles definitely tops San Diego among California’s cities; but in the beauty of the city and the warmth of some of the Jewish communities, San Diego has Los Angeles beat.
Congregation Adat Yeshurun in La Jolla in the San Diego area. Photo courtesy of Congregation Adat Yeshurun.
San Diego is about 120 miles south of Los Angeles, where I was visiting my son David and his family. I decided I wanted to visit San Diego while I was in California.
I took a Greyhound bus, which made it to downtown San Diego in a bit over two hours, and walked across the street to take a clean and airy multiple car trolley to an area near San Carlos, where my hosts lived.
I had never met my hosts, Sandra and Itiel Doron, before, but they were kind enough to take a stranger into their home. The hospitality was arranged by the doyen of the Jewish community in San Carlos, an area of pleasant one- and two-story homes, much like Glendale, except for San Carlos’s magnificent vistas of mountains and ravines.
My five days in the community included a tent dinner after a shiva service; an early morning walk in San Diego’s famous zoo with my hostess and her friend; two wonderful Shabbos meals at the home of Richard Goodwin, one of the founders of the community; a Rosh Chodesh flower arranging and explanation of Rosh Chodesh by my hostess, with appropriate foods, in my hostess’s arbor (this in January) with women from 30 to 80 years old; and walks in the crisp mornings with five women of the community.
I attended Sabbath services at Young Israel of San Diego, which was a complex of rooms in a shopping center. Rabbi Chaim Hollander, who also teaches at the Orthodox day school, is quiet and well spoken, and very welcoming to strangers.
Hollander, originally from Ohio, told me that all six of his sons had attended the Wisconsin Institute for Torah Study high school in Milwaukee. In fact, several boys from San Diego have attended WITS in the past.
The Young Israel reminded me of Lake Park Synagogue in Milwaukee. Not all of the congregants are Sabbath observant. Some ride to the shul for Sabbath services. However, many of these people are housed by others in the community, who live within walking distance of the synagogue, for the High Holy Days.
The sanctuary of the Young Israel of San Diego synagogue. Photo provided by Itiel Doron.
One congregant described the synagogue as Modern Orthodox. It seems that a majority of the congregants are ba’alei teshuvah, Jews who became Orthodox as adults.
It also reminded me of Lake Park Synagogue in how it began with a few people in someone’s home. One of the founders, and a past synagogue president, Richard Goodwin, always has his home open to people for Sabbath meals.
When the synagogue was in its early stages, he went door to door with two of his now five children, asking if the people were Jewish, and if yes, if they’d like to attend the newly formed synagogue.
The synagogue has become an extended family to its members so that “each loss of a congregant,” as one congregant put it, “is like the loss of a member of the family.” Each wedding, birth, and bar or bat mitzvah is celebrated as though it was the joy of a close relative as well.
Keeping kosher in San Diego can be a challenge. The local Ralph’s has a kosher section, as well as tables to eat kosher cold cuts at the store. Trader Joe’s, as in Milwaukee, has many kosher items. Many of the locals, Sandra said, travel to Los Angeles from time to time to go to restaurants, and buy special food they can’t get in San Diego.
La Cafe is a kosher dairy restaurant in San Diego. There is also a Jewish eatery in the Jewish Center in La Jolla that serves meat items.
La Jolla is the most upscale of the San Diego Jewish communities. A La Jolla Orthodox synagogue, Congregation Adat Yeshurun, is in a lovely building with an elevated women’s section. The after service Kiddush is held outside in a charming courtyard.
And this synagogue, too, has a Wisconsin connection. The daughter of its leader, Rabbi Jeffrey Wohlgelernter , is married to the son of Lisa and Jim Hiller of Milwaukee.
The synagogue has a mikvah, which is open to the general Jewish public, and there is an eruv, which allows Orthodox Jews to carry items in its enclosure, in the area.
Another orthodox synagogue, Beth Jacob Congregation, is in the vicinity of San Diego College. It also has an eruv. An Orthodox day school is located here, and a WITS alumnus, Israel Weisser, teaches there. The synagogue has apartments on its grounds which can be rented for a Sabbath stay or for longer.
A Conservative congregation, Tifereth Israel Synagogue, is the second oldest congregation of San Diego, and observed its 100th anniversary in 2005.
In the area of Bonita, closest to the Mexican border, is an interesting Sephardic synagogue, Beth Eliyahu Torah Center. Beth Eliyahu is also in a shopping center, and the rabbi gives his sermons in Spanish.
Along with five day elementary schools, San Diego has two day high schools, one for boys, one for girls.
There are also a dozen Chabad synagogues around San Diego County, and a Chabad day school in La Jolla. All told, according to the “Synagogues in San Diego” website, there are seven Reform; six Orthodox; seven Conservative; and one Reconstructionist. Six mikvahs are listed on the San Diego Mikvah site.
Jews were in San Diego from the city’s beginning. San Diego Park’s headquarters is located in the Robinson-Rose House, named after two settlers who arrived by wagon train from El Paso in 1850. The mezuzah on the door is in honor of Louis Rose, a German Jewish immigrant.
Rose served in a variety of public offices, including the city board of trustees and the first county board of supervisors. He purchased property on San Diego Bay, where he built a town called Roseville. He also donated land for the first Jewish cemetery.
San Diego’s Rose Canyon, where he built the area’s first tannery, is named after him. Geologists call its fault the Rose Canyon Fault, and it’s the city’s prime earthquake zone.
Another Jewish merchant, Lewis Franklin, built San Diego’s three-story Franklin Hotel in the 1850s. He had moved to San Diego in 1851, meeting with a handful of other Jews for a Yom Kippur service.
One of the first trustees of Balboa Park’s museums was a Jewish man named Marcus Schiller.
You can see the first synagogue built in San Diego, Congregation Beth Israel, originally Reform, constructed in 1889, now situated on a hill next to Old Town San Diego in Heritage Park. I had seen its exterior and it was very impressive, with its Star of David windows and Tablets of the Law depiction. It is considered an excellent example of Victorian architecture.
There are numerous examples of Jewish involvement and history in San Diego. The Jonas Salk institute is there, and many Jewish philanthropists have helped to build the city. There was even a Jewish police chief and sheriff of the city.
About 89,000 Jews live in the city, according to 2004 figures. So if you do visit, you can not only partake in San Diego’s Jewish life today, but also visit historic Jewish sites in one of the most beautiful cities in the U.S.
Arlene Becker Zarmi is a freelance writer whose work has been published in more than 40 publications nationwide. She was also the producer and host of a travel TV show for Viacom, and is a Jewish genre and portrait artist. She lives with her husband, Rabbi Avi Zarmi, in Shorewood.