While most Jews seem to have left Europe and headed west following the Gold Rush, some Jewish immigrants had come earlier. Solomon Franco is said to have arrived in Boston in 1649. However, Franco’s stay was cut short when the Puritans took up a collection and gave him a bit of money on the condition that he take the next boat back to Holland. Through the early years, there was sporadic immigration of Jews to America, but in September 1654, 23 Jews of Dutch ancestry arrived in New Amsterdam from Brazil.
In 1776, the U. S. Census counted about 2,000 Jews, mostly of Spanish and Portuguese origin, living in America. They played significant roles in the struggle for independence, including fighting the British and financing the Revolution.
By 1840, 15,000 Jews were counted by the U. S. census, and eight years later, the numbers increased to 50,000.
In 1816, with 600 Jewish inhabitants, Charleston, S.C. had the largest Jewish population of any city in the U.S.
Some Jewish immigrants were said to have left Europe for America to find a better way of life, while others came later because of the Gold Rush. They sailed from the East Coast to Nicaragua or Panama, and then rode or walked to the coast in hopes of catching a boat to Los Angeles or San Francisco.
Peddlers often walked across the country, stopping to establish what would later become giants in merchandising, such as the Goldwassers or Goldwaters in Arizona.
In 1880, 280 Jews were living in Los Angeles, while San Francisco counted 20,000, with most of them coming from Poland, Russia and Prussia.
Jewish life on the Central Coast most likely began with the arrival of the Goldtree family in 1858. There were soon branches of the Goldtree family located throughout the area (including the northern part of Santa Barbara County, where they established a Wells Fargo Office and published a newspaper). The Goldtrees also sold 200 acres of land to Union Sugar, on which the company built its famed sugar plant on land that later became the town of Betteravia.
Generally speaking, once settled in towns, Jews generally became involved in fraternal orders and lodges. It gave them an easy access into American life, plus benefits such as sick visitations and death benefits. Because the rituals were based on the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), they felt very much at home.
Most merchants were literate and set up benevolent societies to help transients and the needy. They bought Mexican land grants and, not only started land companies, but were also involved in merchandising, mining, real estate and hotel construction.
Jews established stores in both San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, and often exchanged partnerships.
In the 1890s, Lazar Blochman conducted High Holy Day services, attended by nearly 100 people, at the Masonic Building in San Luis Obispo. After oil was discovered on their property south of town, the Blochmans moved to Berkeley where Lazar, at the age of 59, enrolled as a freshman at the University of California, Berkeley, majoring in geography and meteorology.
Joseph Kaiser, cousin of Blochman, was a real estate dealer and president of Kaiser Land and Fruit Company. He first came to work as bookkeeper for his brother at the general store of L. M. Kaiser and Company at Guadalupe.
When Kaiser went into business with Blackman & Cerf, the name was changed to Kaiser Land and Fruit Company, with Joseph serving as president. He also served as Treasurer of the Santa Maria Stock and Agricultural Assn.
As history shows, at one time or another, these Jewish merchants were in business together, and there were often marriages between the families.
One of the bright and shining lights in Guadalupe was Harold Rosenblum, an honor student, singer, pianist, banjoist and saxophonist. His brother (Bert) started the first supermarket in Santa Maria. Harold eventually became a noted heart specialist.
Samuel Kriedel came to New York City from Austria in 1872. Two years after moving to San Luis Obispo he went to Central City where he engaged in business with Jonas Cassner under the firm name of Cassner and Kriedel, which later became Kriedel and Fleisher.
Mark Fleisher, also born in Austria, came to San Bernardino County at the age of 15, where he began merchandising with his father. After a short stint in Los Angeles, he returned to San Bernardino. In 1872 he was employed with Blochman & Co. of San Luis Obispo as head salesman. After five years, he went to Central City and formed the Kriedel & Fleisher partnership. Fleisher eventually became president of Union Sugar Company.
Samuel Coblentz came from the San Francisco area in 1884 to open a store with Alfred Weilheimer on the corner of West Main Street and North Broadway. In 1891 Weilheimer sold his interest in the business to Lewis Schwabacher and the two continued to serve Santa Maria until 1931 when they closed the business.
Since there was no synagogue in Santa Maria, Jewish families went to San Francisco for the Holy Days. The few who stayed in town attended services led by Lazar Blochman wherever they could find a spot. Sometimes services were held in the DES Hall on West Chapel, sometimes in the Methodist Church, sometimes at the Little Theater on the corner of McClelland and Jones and sometimes in the Masonic building.
Most, if not all, of the Jews in Santa Maria seemed to have left in the 1930s, with many of them moving up to the Bay area.
When World War II ended, many former service members from what I call “cold country” who had been stationed in Santa Maria and marveled at its year-long beautiful weather decided that snow and ice just wasn’t for them. The population explosion was unprecedented, and Jewish people were among those who began to call Santa Maria “home.”
During the ensuing years, with no synagogue in the area, the Jewish people met wherever they could. Services were held in the DES Hall on West Chapel, a classroom at the First Methodist Church, the Little Theater on the corner of Jones and South McClelland, and later at the home of Dan and Trudy Chern. Religious classes were held in the homes of the various Jewish families in the area.
In the early 1950s, the Amity Club was organized with the purpose of connecting Jews from Paso Robles to Santa Maria both socially and religiously.
During the Korean War the Club took care of the Jewish Army personnel by attending chapel services at the Camp and arranging many special functions with the help of the Army personnel.
21 Jewish families living in the area (and about 70 living on the Central Coast), the members realized that the time had come to build a Temple in Santa Maria. In January 1961, a committee was formed to discuss the feasibility of such a building, and at a meeting in January 1964, the Temple voted to purchase a 12⁄3 acres lot on Alvin Street for $12,500.
Next Week: Building a Temple
Temple Beth El, at 1501 East Alvin will hold Rosh Hashanah services Wed, Sept. 8 at 7 p.m. and Thursday, Sept. 9 at 10 a.m. Anyone wishing to worship is invited to attend. For further information, please contact Juan Hovey at 354-0480.
Shirley Contreras lives in Orcutt and writes for the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society. She can be contacted at 934-3514 or at shirley
email@example.com. Her book, “The Good Years,” a selection of stories she’s written for the Santa Maria Times since 1991, is on sale at the Santa Maria Valley Historical Museum at 616 S. Broadway.