Jews have been part of Pasadena’s history since the city was founded in 1874. That year, Maurice and Mina Rosenbaum moved to the area, constructed a house on what is now Orange Grove Avenue and the following year opened Pasadena’s first store on the Corner of Orange Grove and Colorado. They may have been the only Jewish residents in Pasadena until the mid-1880’s, when the city grew like the rest of Southern California after the region was connected by rail to the eastern United States. The explosive growth of Pasadena during the last decade of the 19th century included Jewish merchants who established a variety of businesses in and near the center of the town’s commercial district at the intersection of Fair Oaks and Colorado.
Three attempts were made to organize Pasadena’s Jewish community. The first was in 1907, when the newly formed congregation Agudath Achim (United Brethren) held Pasadena’s first High Holy Day services. Though it also held High Holy Day services two more years, the congregation had disbanded by 1910.
The second attempt to organize Jewish life in Pasadena was in 1912, when the Hebrew Aid Society was formed. Its major accomplishment was establishing Pasadena’s first Jewish religious school in 1915. Within two years, however, both the school and the Hebrew Aid Society ceased operating.
In 1921, the third attempt was made to organized Jewish life in Pasadena and this succeeded in establishing what is now our congregation. That year, incorporation papers for Temple B’nai Israel of Pasadena were accepted by the State of California. Fund raising began immediately for a new temple, which succeeded in raising funds to complete a home for the congregation in 1923 at Walnut and Hudson.
Temple B’nai Israel employed eight rabbis during the first 10 years after the synagogue was dedicated: Raphael Goldenstein, Eugene Rosenberg, C. Louis Hirsch, Joseph Jasin, Dr. Morton Kovan, Henry Radlin, and Samuel Alkow. When Jacob Halevi became rabbi in 1933, he brought stability to the congregation by serving until 1940.
Despite the continuing economic challenges resulting from the Great Depression, Temple B’nai Israel maintained an active Sisterhood, a large religious school, sponsored a Boy Scout troop, purchased a large section at the Home of Peace Cemetery for burials of members, and provided a meeting place for numerous Jewish organizations in the area.
Shortly before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, our congregation purchased the Spanish styled building and the land where our synagogue remains to this day. With a larger facility than the one at Walnut and Hudson, the congregation hosted numerous Jewish organizations in Pasadena, including the B’nai B’rith, and Hadassah. A special ark was created for the sanctuary by Peter Krasnow that is now one of our congregation’s artistic treasures in Knell Chapel.
During World War II, more than 50 men and women in the congregation served in all branches of the armed forces in both the Pacific and European theaters. Leading the congregation through the war years was Rabbi David Cohen. He encouraged the congregation to hold U.S.O. styled dances at the temple for the large number of servicemen at the nearby military base at the Santa Anita Racetrack, supported congregants who provided a place to spend the night after attending Friday night and High Holy Day service, and praised the Sisterhood for meeting every Tuesday night to sew for the Red Cross.
During the post-war period, membership of our congregation grew as the population in Southern California exploded. To accommodate this growth. the temple initiated an extensive capital campaign that resulted in constructing a new building that now houses the Galpert Sanctuary and Social Hall, adding classroom to the north wing of the Spanish styled building acquired in 1941, and built a swimming pool. With the completion of construction, our congregation had the facilities where it could pray, learn, and socialize in a variety of activities.
The occupational profile of the congregation changed after World War II as it attracted more professionals who were moving into the area because of the expansion of the California Institute of Technology and its affiliate organization, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the growth of private and public institutions of higher education, and the increasing engineering sophistication of the products of the aerospace industry. Responding to these changes, the congregation hired Max Vorspan as its spiritual leader in 1947. During the five years he served as Rabbi, he helped transform the community from one centered on its religious practices to a center that was home to all aspects of Jewish life. Symbolizing this goal, in 1949 the congregation changed its name from Temple B’nai Israel to the Pasadena Jewish Community. Rabbi Vorspan was also a leader in opening up Jewish practices by encouraging thirteen year old twin sisters, Marlene and Nadine Goodstein to have what became Pasadena’s first Bnot Mitvahs in December of 1951.
After Rabbi Vorspan left in 1952 to work at the American Jewish University, Rabbi Maurice T. Galpert became our spiritual leader and served for 36 years. He is remembered for his engaging and friendly manner, as well as his scholarship, wit, energy, love of Judaism and his intellectually stimulating sermons and lectures. His presence in the community is memorialized by the naming of the Sanctuary the Galpert Sanctuary and establishing the Rabbi Maurice T. Galpert Scholarship Award for promising young students in the congregation.
The Galpert years were marked by the growing involvement of women in the governance and religious practices of the congregation. At the beginning of the era, women mainly performed the traditional function of preparing food for events. They had no involvement in the religious practices other than being members of the choir, and they occupied few governance positions other than the Sisterhood. But by the end of the 1980s, women had become congregational leaders and were full participants in the religious service. The increasing involvement of women in the temple’s religious life was pioneered by making Bnot Mitzvahs for girls equal to the Bnai Mitzvah for boys. In 1987, Marcia Alper made history at the temple by being the first woman to read the Torah during regular Shabbat services and in 1990 became the first woman elected President of the congregation.
During this period, the small chapel in the original Spanish styled building was refurbished and renamed the Knell Chapel in honor of Israel and Fannie Knell through a generous gift of Harvey Knell. The large social hall in the building was renamed Wohlmann Hall in honor of Marcus and Freida Wohlmann through a generous gift by Otto Wolman.
After Rabbi Galpert’s death in 1988, we invited Rabbi Gilbert Kollin to become our teacher and spiritual leader. Serving between 1989 and 2003, Rabbi Kollin revitalized the morning Shabbat service, established a close relationship with Pasadena’s Muslim community after 9/11 2001, conducted classes sponsored by the American Jewish University at the temple, welcomed inter-faith families into the congregation, and served as President of the Los Angeles area Board of Rabbis. After retiring in 2003, he continued to be involved in the congregation, serving as the Rabbi Emeritus, teaching Talmud and Introduction to Judaism, and assisting with services and life-cycle events.
Since 1983, we have housed the Weizmann Day School on our campus and since 2014 have housed the B’nai Simcha pre-school. These schools are the only Jewish day and pre-schools in the San Gabriel Valley.
As a result of the changing demographics of the area, the period since 1990 has been marked by mergers of synagogues. In 1997, PJTC merged with Shomrei Emunah in Sunland-Tunjunga, and twelve years later, PJTC merged with Shaarei Torah in Arcadia, which itself was the result of earlier mergers between congregations in Sierra Madre, El Monte, and Alhambra. With these mergers, PJTC became the only Conservative affiliated synagogue in the Western San Gabriel Valley.
During this period, the role of the Cantor changed. In 1995, Judy Sofer was hired as the congregation’s first woman and the first full-time cantor. In addition to the traditional duties of preparing boys and girls for the Bnei mitzvah and leading services, she created a sense of community by recruiting the members of the congregation to participate in musicals she directed, led the choir in concerts and services, and encouraged women to be full participants in religious services by helping them be Torah readers. In 2011, Ruth Berman Harris was hired as the cantor. Growing up in Argentina, she combined a Sephardic sensibility with the Ashkenazi music that is integral to our religious services.
In 2003, our congregation hired Rabbi Joshua Levine-Grater as its spiritual leader. He brought a commitment to supporting Israel, leading two congregational trips, promoted social justice through civic action, and was honored for his involvement by being invited to attend President Barack Obama’s 2010 Hanakah Party. Rabbi Grater also led the congregation into the 21st century by introducing new elements to the traditional religious practice, such as meditation and instrumental accompaniment.
Our congregation has been a welcoming home to the LGBT community, accepting people on the basis of who they are and not what they are. This value was exemplified when our congregation became the first Conservative congregation to employ a transgender rabbi by hiring Becky Silverstein in 2014 as its Education Director.
As our congregation completes its first centenary, Rabbi Noam Raucher became our spiritual leader in 2016. With an academic background in Judaic Studies and Psychology, he has worked with members and encouraged our congregation to develop programs and activities that develop positive relationships with the goal of building a sense of community among the Jews of the San Gabriel Valley.
Michael Several, February 2017