Nevada’s First Jewish Temple Turns 100
Reno’s Temple Emanu-El brought the growing community together.
BY SUE EDMONDSON
It seems unlikely that the California Gold Rush would spawn Nevada’s first Jewish synagogue. Yet, that’s where Temple Emanu-El’s story begins.
Jewish merchants from the East Coast and Europe joined the mass migration to California in the late 1840s, seeking prosperity as suppliers of goods and services just as they had done back home. When The Comstock Lode hit in 1859, hundreds of merchants headed east to Nevada, settling at what was then called Fuller’s Crossing, a hospitable location for receiving merchandise from San Francisco. Arrival of the Central Pacific Railroad in 1868 made the community—now renamed Reno—an economic hub, and the Jewish community was there to stay.
Building a temple soon became a priority for the community, but plans were waylaid in 1917 by World War I. On Feb. 27, 1921, the effort moved forward with a fund-raising gala where community leaders spoke enthusiastically about the need for a place to worship. Their support helped raise a whopping $8,000 ($121,000 in today’s economy) from the 175 gala attendees.
The “Reno Evening Gazette” captured local sentiment about the venture: “Such a religious temple means much for Reno. It gives this little city a truly metropolitan spirit and makes it a community where all can find a home…”
When the cornerstone was laid on June 14, 1921, at 426 West Street, Governor Emmet Boyle, Chief Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Coleman, and Reno Mayor Harry Stewart spoke about the significant Jewish contributions to civilization. That October, Temple Emanu-El held its first religious services, which were performed by people of note from the congregation, along with visiting rabbis. Composer Samuel Goldfarb, who gained fame for the song “I Had A Little Dreidel,” served as the Temple’s cantor—the official who often leads prayers and songs—from 1923-1925.
Harry Tarlow—born Hirsh Opoczynski—served as the temple’s resident rabbi for almost 20 years. His low salary led him to perform weddings and board Jewish divorcees. He and his wife Pearl also ran a kosher kitchen. In 1947, a new rabbi was brought on, and Tarlow was named rabbi emeritus.
NEW HOME, OLD TREASURES
The temple and its congregation continued to grow, but by the 1970s, the building’s support timbers were failing and it was clear the temple needed a new home. Despite attempts to save the building, it was condemned. The temple was vacated in December 1970, and services were held at a local musician’s hall.
Congregant and prominent banker Herbert Brown facilitated the purchase of land from the City of Reno. Building began at the new location on Manzanita Lane, and on April 29, 1973, the building was dedicated. Governor Mike O’Callahan was among the state and local officeholders in attendance.
Around this time, Brown also acquired two significant keepsakes for the Temple: a Torah scroll recovered from a Nazi cache of confiscated religious items and ceramic floor tiles believed to be the entrance to a mikvah (a ritual bath). The tiles were salvaged from the Harrah’s Hotel and Casino construction site at Center and Lake Streets, which was situated at what was once the heart of the Jewish district. But perhaps Temple Emanu-El’s most significant acquisition came when it created Nevada’s first Judaica library.
In 1983, members began discussing the need for a library of Jewish literature, both non-fiction and fiction. That year, the temple began a fundraising campaign to build a library. It took four years, but in 1987, ground broke for the addition of the Judaica library in 1988.
The “Dr. Emanuel Berger Judaica Library of Temple Emanu-El”—in honor of Dr. Berger’s contribution of funds and books—was the first library of such magnitude in Nevada. The book collection numbers in the thousands, and members of the public are welcome to peruse the library’s shelves with an appointment.
A LONG LEGACY
For the last 100 years, Temple Emanu-El’s congregation has remained a committed and dedicated part of the Reno community. Members both past and present—including Charlotte Arley, one of Nevada’s first female lawyers; the Parkers of Parker’s Western Wear; John Farahi and family, of the Atlantis Casino Resort Spa—have kept Temple Emanu-El a vibrant and important part of Reno’s community.