Times Past

Dan Krieger: Menorah at mission says much about SLO

Since December 1990, a special ecumenical celebration has taken place near the front doors to Mission San Luis Obispo.

During the eight days of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of light — which begins on Friday and ends Dec. 18 — a large menorah will be lit by members of local synagogues at 5 p.m.

People of all beliefs are invited. The ceremony includes a few minutes of prayer and songs.

The modern five-foot-tall menorah was designed by the Rev. Jim Nisbet, pastor of the mission from 1980 to 1994.

Nisbet is a noted artist and scholar of the Hebrew Testament. His Star of David-menorah themed serigraph, “Fruits of the Holy Land,” was commissioned by a hotel in Tel Aviv and is displayed in Jewish and Christian homes in our county.

He has given guest sermons in Protestant churches and synagogues. His presentations on the books of the Hebrew and Christian Bible continue to draw large audiences. Many San Luis Obispo residents have his presentations on tape.

Nisbet and his close friend Harry Manhoff, who was rabbi at Congregation Beth David, sought a community gathering in honor of Hanukkah.

It celebrates an event nearly 2,200 years ago, when the Jews briefly regained their freedom from foreign rule.

They were discussing the irony of court rulings that prevented displaying religious symbols on public property. They decided it would be appropriate, then, to display a menorah in San Luis Obispo’s most visible place, at the mission overlooking Chorro Street.

The menorah was constructed by Moises Lewis, a Portuguese Catholic from the Azores, who was chief of maintenance at the Mission. His name is appropriately derived from the Jewish prophet Moses.

Relationships between Catholics and Jews in San Luis Obispo County go back to the origins of the American pueblo in 1849.

The mission church was the center of the small town and the seat of county government. Lazare Godchaux, a Jewish merchant from France, bought the Mexican land grant of El Paso de los Robles for $8,000 in 1849. Godchaux sought the advice of Father José Miguel Gómez at the mission in developing his land.

In March 1920, a fire originating in the sacristy behind the altar badly damaged the entire mission church. Some people wanted the mission torn down. Mayor Louis Sinsheimer, who was Jewish, was indignant at the idea of losing so historic a building. He led the campaign to raise funds to restore the damaged structure.

In 1925, the grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan came over from Taft to stir up feelings against Catholics and Jews. Klansmen paraded up Monterey Street to the Civic Auditorium. The Daily Telegram later reported that he drew a 20-minute standing ovation from an overflowing house.

Sinsheimer and Father Dan Keenan, the new pastor at the mission, urged Jews and Catholics to remain calm. By taking the higher path, they deeply shamed the local bigots who supported the Klan’s activities. Within days, some who had attended the Klan meeting were going out of their way to greet Catholic and Jewish locals they encountered on the street.

The Klan’s moment in San Luis Obispo history had come and passed. The late Jane Andre, Keenan’s sister, said that “no one wanted to be associated with those notorious rednecks from the Valley.”

The menorah at our mission says a great deal about what San Luis Obispo stands for.

Thanks go to Lauren Bandari, who interviewed Nisbet and Manhoff for this article.

Liz Krieger contributed to this article.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.