Rosh Hashanah marks start of 170th year for Sacramento’s most storied synagogue 

Sacramento’s oldest synagogue will celebrate and reflect upon the congregation’s past, present and future as the Jewish New Year begins this Sunday.

The start of months of planned celebrations for its 170th anniversary, Congregation B’nai Israel will observe the Rosh Hashanah holiday Sunday through Tuesday.

Rabbi Mona Alfi says Erev Rosh Hashanah will kick off a “whole year of celebration” for the anniversary, which will recognize the long and important role B’nai Israel has played in the city’s history.

“We find that so many of the things that are important to us now are themes and stories that have been always been a part of not just our history, but the history of Sacramento,” Alfi said.

That history is showcased in an exhibit titled “170 Years of Philanthropy, Advocacy, and Social Action,” which is on display now at the temple’s Heritage Hall.

Social justice is something Alfi says plays a critical role in today’s society and will be an emphasis in the coming anniversary celebrations.

B’nai Israel’s current temple, at Riverside Boulevard and 11th Avenue in Land Park, is the former site of a swimming pool that was the center of a contentious segregation lawsuit in the 1950s, Alfi explained.

The courts ruled against the owner, who decided to close the pool. B’nai Israel inscribed the words, “Love thy neighbor as thyself” on the wall of the temple facing Riverside Boulevard as a “nod” to the fight against segregation, and as “a statement of who we are and what we believe,” Alfi said.

A pamphlet for the Reform Jewish community stresses inclusivity: “We are multi-generational and multicultural. We are married, single, with or without kids, LGBTQIA, Jews by choice or by birth, interfaith and differently-abled.”

“One of the things B’nai Israel is very involved in are issues around refugees and immigrants, and our congregation was founded by immigrants, so it’s something that’s very near and dear to our hearts,” Alfi added. “The ingenuity, the hard work, the vision and imagination of immigrants built our city, it’s built our state and it’s been a big part of the building of our country.”

The exhibit currently adorning the heritage hall includes photographs, newspaper clippings, candelabras and other artifacts documenting B’nai Israel’s history at five different temples dating back to the Gold Rush. B’nai Israel consecrated its first temple, on 7th Street between L and M streets, in September 1852. The congregation bought that building from the Methodist Episcopal Church for a reported $2,000.

The modern temple has also faced devastating hardships, though, and recently marked another anniversary of one of the darkest days in synagogue and city history.

This June 18 marked 20 years since the 1999 firebombing of B’nai Israel and two other synagogues in Sacramento by white supremacists. The arson caused nearly $3 million in damage, a tragedy Alfi called a “staggering experience,” but one that remains important in the minds of the congregation.

“It’s been a big part of who we are. Every time we get involved in something, we think about that and what it means, and the responsibility of being a minority. And just speaking out for others who may not feel as safe or comfortable to speak out for themselves and their own protection.”

A gala banquet for the 170th anniversary on Nov. 16 will be emceed by Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg. The mayor’s wife, Julie, is cantor at B’nai Israel. Both are integral, active members in the congregation.

Alfi said Congregation B’nai Israel is proud of its roots in Sacramento, and how its members directly impact the community.

“We don’t believe religion should stay in the sanctuary. It’s something we should enact in our everyday behaviors and how we interact with people.”

Michael McGough anchors The Sacramento Bee’s breaking news reporting team, covering public safety and other local stories. A Sacramento native and lifelong capital resident, he interned at The Bee while attending Sacramento State, where he earned a degree in journalism.