San Bernardino loses its Jewish congregation

At first, it’s hard to tell what’s got Rabbi Doug Kohn so jazzed.

The slight Connecticut transplant with graying sideburns barrels out of his Toyota Prius and waves his outstretched palm across a five-acre Redlands lot.

“Isn’t it incredible?” he asks.

Just beyond Kohn on a recent morning lies an expanse of dirt, rocks and weeds. But for the rabbi, this barren lot, the new site for Congregation Emanu El, holds the future of the Inland Empire’s Jewish community.

Emanu El, once the only Jewish congregation in San Bernardino, moved east to Redlands last December, leaving one of the biggest cities in California with no center for organized Judaism.

The controversial move, after more than a century in San Bernardino, is the exclamation point to decades of eastward migration by the city’s Jewish community. A look across the horizon behind the lot, Kohn says, tells the community’s story.


Following the 10 Freeway west, one sees San Bernardino. According to local historians, the first Jews to settle in Southern California arrived in San Bernardino on a wagon train in the mid-19th century along with a group of Mormons. Over the decades, the community flourished. The city’s central library is even named after a former rabbi at Emanu El.

Tracking the freeway east, one comes to Redlands and other small neighboring cities. As jobs evaporated and crime worsened in San Bernardino, many professionals, among them many members of the city’s Jewish community, moved east.

The decision by Emanu El’s leaders to break its historic ties to San Bernardino spurred dissent from some congregants, most notably from its prominent rabbi emeritus. But Kohn said the move was unavoidable if the temple was to stop hemorrhaging congregants who were moving away.

He compared the eastward shift to other Jewish migrations, including that of the Jewish community in Los Angeles, which was once based on the Eastside but has since moved west.

“Would you argue that all of the Jews of the Valley, the Westside and Orange County move back to Boyle Heights?” said Kohn, who specialized in Jewish American migration during his rabbinical studies.

Kohn estimated that about 300 Jews still live in the city of San Bernardino, a fifth of the number there at its peak in the 1980s.

The congregation then boasted more than 500 families, roughly half of whom lived in San Bernardino. Now more than three quarters of the congregation, which is down to about 250 families, live outside the city. Since moving to Redlands, temple leaders say, their congregation has grown, turnout for services has ballooned and more families have expressed interest.

With the closure of the Norton Air Force Base and a depressed job market weakening San Bernardino’s draw, living in neighboring communities makes more sense for many. Two hospitals and a university serve as magnets for migration into Redlands and surrounding cities, including Highland, Yucaipa, Beaumont and Banning.

Still, not all of the synagogue’s congregants were pleased with the move. Rabbi Hillel Cohn, leader at Emanu El for three decades, blasted the decision, saying it frayed a historic association with the city of San Bernardino.

In a recent interview, the rabbi, 71, said he understood that moving was sometimes unavoidable for congregations but that it should occur only when a majority of congregants has moved far away, not 20 minutes or so to the east.

“Frankly, in our world today people are enamored with the new,” he said. “But it’s just that this synagogue has been such an integral part of the city for so long.”

The decision to depart has left some bruised feelings. Cohn said a number of non-Jewish residents in San Bernardino -- where he lives -- have asked why the synagogue is leaving.

The departure drew the attention of San Bernardino Mayor Pat Morris, who called it a significant loss for the city. The synagogue’s members, he said, have historically been leaders in the community.

The mayor said Emanu El’s move was part of a broad migration of upper-middle-income professionals out of the city.

“With the closing of shops, the closing of the Air Force base, a whole series of major blue-collar employers leaving, life changed in this fair city,” Morris said. “More dependence on government resources, higher welfare. It is what it is.”

Congregants at Emanu El say that shift was evident at the synagogue, with car break-ins and tagging nearby and the need for surveillance cameras and for security guards at services.

To ease the transition for longtime congregants, synagogue leaders took cherished items from the old synagogue to a temporary location in Redlands, close to the lot where the permanent temple will eventually be built.

A black marble memorial wall honoring late congregants, relatives and friends, was moved to the temporary site. So was a wooden Simcha wall showcasing miniature plaques that recall decades-old anniversaries, births and other festive occasions.

A half-dozen Torah scrolls hand-written on tanned ram skins -- one of which is said to have been carried on that first wagon train -- sit near the sanctuary’s center.

The goal is to bring the whole spectrum of memories, Kohn says, the old with the new.

“We’ve done a wonderful job of taking the past with us. Any community that does not evolve ossifies and fails,” he said, pausing.

“The secret is to evolve but bring your past as an anchor.”