When we think of California today, we think of perfect weather, beautiful beaches and Hollywood stars. Before these modern dreams, however, California was a land of wild settlers who had come to seek their fortunes in gold.
While there were some early Jewish settlers along the western coast, major settlement in the area began only after gold was discovered in 1848. Treacherous as the journey west was, whether by land or by sea, thousands arrived to seek their fortunes, either as miners or by supplying the miners.
The population of California grew so quickly that by September 9, 1850, California was able to become the 31st state of the United States. At the time of statehood, the largest city of the state was San Francisco, which was the location of the primary Californian Jewish community of the 19th century. The first organized High Holiday services took place in San Francisco, and in Sacramento, in 1849, and, by 1851, there were two established congregations: Shearith Israel (English, Polish, Sephardic) and Congregation Emanu-El (French and German).
During the boom years of the mid-19th century, the Jews of San Francisco flourished. It was estimated that in the 1870s, Jews made up 7% of the city’s population.* From early on, Jews were included and even welcomed in the municipal government. In 1887, San Francisco’s mayor, Washington Montgomery Bartlet, who was of Sephardic descent, was elected governor of California. Alas, nine months after taking office, the first (and only) Jewish governor of California died of Brights Disease.
By the turn of the century, the boom of the gold rush had subsided, although California’s population continued to grow. Thanks to the state’s early history, however, Jews were, by then, an established presence within the state’s population.
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