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Hidden in the Walls

Sep 21, 2002–Feb 16, 2003

Time Capsule from San Francisco's Lost Sanctuary

On September 21, 2001, an abandoned 19th-century synagogue on San Francisco's Bush Street was about to be renovated as part of a Japanese-American assisted living facility. The cornerstone of the building, and the time capsule it contained, were opened that day for the first time in more than a century. The documents, objects, and mysteries that lay hidden in the walls of Congregation Ohabai Shalome are on view in this exhibition, along with rescued remnants from the 1895 sanctuary itself, which today is the oldest standing synagogue building in San Francisco.

about the exhibition

With these surviving fragments as a starting point, and with clues discovered during the creation of the exhibition, Hidden in the Walls traces the tumultuous rise, fall and afterlife of a pioneer congregation born in the early years of San Francisco. The 70-year story of Congregation Ohabai Shalome—which translated means "Lovers of Peace"—is one of religious schisms, architectural yearnings and social turmoil in a changing community. It is a drama that mirrors the growth and complexity of San Francisco itself—evidenced no more strikingly than by the synagogue's transformation into a Zen Buddhist mission and an African-American Baptist church. We hope that Hidden in the Walls helps rescue the legacy of a sanctuary, and opens a doorway not just onto a lost congregation, but onto entire communities defining themselves in changing times.

The Double Time Capsule of Ohabai Shalome

A time capsule is an archaeological jigsaw puzzle: it invites us to inspect each piece for clues about its meaning, but, when viewed as a whole, also forms a larger and sometimes surprising picture of the concerns and hopes of a distant generation. The picture revealed by the Ohabai Shalome time capsule was a special case, a double exposure—for the cornerstone contained not only materials from the world of the congregation's new 1895 building, but items from a previous time capsule created in 1865, in the first decades of Jewish life in the wake of the California Gold Rush.

The earliest contents of the time capsule afford a glimpse of a first-generation Jewish community beginning to lay down roots, establishing institutions heavily inflected with the practices and languages of Europe. It provides us proud evidence of the fledgling organizations in their community; they appeared conscious of their role as Jewish pioneers. The later items, from 1895, were matter-of-fact, worldly, and somehow more familiar to us. Their daily newspapers and business cards are artifacts of a community deeply integrated into metropolitan life: not so much a world apart, but part of the whole.

What the time capsule could not reveal is the fate of Congregation Ohabai Shalome. That story unfolds within the gallery.