OH! San Diego features local synagogue

Posted: March 30th, 2018 | Top Story | No Comments

Albert H. Fulcher | Editor

LGBT-friendly Ohr Shalom Synagogue’s historic architectural design

Open House San Diego (OH! San Diego) held its free, two-day open house with more than 80 “must see” architectural designs throughout Bankers Hill, Balboa Park, Downtown, Barrio Logan and Point Loma. Held March 24–25, with an expectation of 10,000 site visitors, many got the chance to see behind-the-scenes tours of San Diego’s historic landmarks and never-before-seen buildings.

Open House Worldwide was founded in London more than 25 years ago. OH! San Diego is relatively a new program going into its third year. San Diego was the third city in the United States to develop its own Open House. Los Angeles is following suit; they were on hand over the weekend to see how everything worked here. The idea was to feature architecture and spaces in San Diego and what it has to show this region’s residents and its visitors alike.
It was important to the San Diego Architectural Foundation and for OH! San Diego Founder Susanne Friestedt that the event was free. This gave people the ability to enjoy architecture in a personal way by making the sites accessible. Each site has its own story, but innovative use of materials, repurposing of space, environmental sustainability, energy efficiency and unique use of public areas were some of the highlights of the designated sites.

Ohr Shalom Synagogue was featured for its Mediterranean and Moorish architecture
during the OH! San Diego two-day open house event. (Photo by Albert H. Fulcher)

In its first year participating, Ohr Shalom Synagogue in Bankers Hill showcased its long history and Mediterranean–Moorish architectural style to the public.

It received 263 visits.

Temple Beth Israel, the largest reform congregation in the city at that time, it was the first Jewish congregation in San Diego. Its original synagogue built in Downtown now sits in Heritage Park in Old Town. With a growing congregation, it purchased the current property at Third Avenue and Laurel Street and began construction in 1925.

The synagogue’s architect, William H. Wheeler, was an Australian immigrant to the U.S. who designed several notable buildings including the Balboa Theater in Downtown, All Saints Episcopal Church in Hillcrest and the Klauber-Wangenheim Building in Downtown. Ohr Shalom was designed to fit in with the Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park in 1915 and the domed, freestanding square synagogue was considered an innovative piece of architecture in the 1920s.

Lynn Mendelsohn, Ohr Shalom vice president of programming and events, said Beth Israel occupied this building until the congregation outgrew the facility. They sold it to a developer who was going to build a large apartment complex, and Beth Temple purchased property across from UTC in University City. The Beth Temple Synagogue there is “absolutely beautiful,” she said.

But this was not the end of Ohr Shalom. A lot of forces in the city including SOHO (Save Our Heritage Organization), Attorney Paul Weil and historian Alex Bevil got involved with other people and groups in the community and fought the purchase.

“Ohr Shalom was founded ages ago as Ohr El, a congregation of immigrants from Mexico that used this building for high holidays,” Mendelsohn said. “When they saw that this building was up in the air, they joined in and it became a two-way battle.”

This battle evolved over seven years, until the city designated the building as a historical site and the developer deeded the property to Ohr Shalom.

“By then, it was old, leaked, not earthquake compliant,” she continued. “In 2009, we took a capital campaign and took $4.5 million renovating the building. We basically gutted the whole thing. We sent the original stained-glass windows to Iowa to an expert to have them refurbished. We reopened in 2011 in this great old building.”

And beautiful it is. The original windows are works of art with traditional symbols of high holy days with its antiquated look. They light up the spacious rooms in the synagogue with filtered, natural light that brings a sense of reverence to the space, along with beautiful hues that flicker through the rooms. Although completely retrofitted, the building still has an ancient look. While the interior is not as elaborate as many of the primordial designs, its small details make this piece of post-modern architecture stand out.

Woodwork on the Ark is breathtakingly beautiful. In the sanctuary, carved into the Ark is the “Shema,” which states the central tenant of Judaism — that there is only one God. It says, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one!” Behind the Ark are nine Torah scrolls, including one for Czechoslovakia that was saved from the Holocaust. Another Torah scroll is in a chapel on the first floor of the school building.

The community room was retrofitted with acoustic walls and panels so sound does not reverberate. This makes it extremely accommodating for large events, with a full working kitchen attached.

In the entrance hall is a magnificent piece of art that displays two trees whose roots intertwine a sitting bench and frame one of the synagogue’s beautiful stained-glass windows. This piece has plaques placed that people can purchase in remembrance of loved ones. This was one of board president Ray Sachs’ fundraising projects.

“Ray Sachs is wonderful,” Mendelsohn said. “We have our annual fundraiser on April 29 to honor him. When he became president in 2012, we still owed $1.1 million. Over the six years of his presidency we managed, with his leadership, to retire that debt.”

Ohr Shalom is a LGBT-affirming congregation that welcomes everyone. Mendelsohn said they just lost a couple in their congregation, who were actively involved and well-loved, when they moved to Israel a couple of weeks ago.

“Two women, one born Jewish and lived in Israel for most of her life, who then met a woman who was not Jewish,” she said. “She approached our rabbi [Rabbi Scott Meltzer] because they wanted to marry, and the fiancee wanted to convert. They were married last summer, and we had a major party. Everybody in the synagogue that could cook was in the kitchen making the feast for their wedding. Everybody came and celebrated, the place was packed. We had a wonderful time. We just had a great goodbye for them. They left a large hole in this place when they left.”

Andrea Luck, Ohr Shalom assistant administrator and graphic designer, has a transgender son. She said she did not go around telling everyone, but when she told the rabbi that he was going through the name change, Meltzer said, “Why don’t you let us name him in the temple with a Hebrew name too.” This is something that is normally done when Jewish babies are born.

“We had a ceremony for my son Ivan here,” she said. “My sister and her husband were in town and they are very religious. My niece came, my mom was there, and it was almost like my son had a bar mitzvah. How much more open to the LGBT community can you get? I’m so proud, the rabbi made me cry when he suggested it. It brought my family closer together, and we are proud of him. He just had his legal name change yesterday. I feel very lucky to be here [and] that this community is so accepting.”

— Albert Fulcher can be reached at

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