As a photographer specializing in Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, one of the best things about my job is getting to see so many of our beautiful synagogues throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. I never realized just how many there were until I started photographing B’nai Mitzvahs! Each one is beautiful in its own unique way, and the variety of architectural styles and decor makes them so interesting to photograph.
Since most of us attend just one synagogue or church, we rarely have a reason to check out any of the other houses of worship scattered throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. I thought it would be fun to show you a sampling of some of the synagogues around the bay that you may have never seen. So sit back and enjoy the virtual tour!
Temple Isaiah, Lafayette
One of the most dramatic looking newer sanctuaries in the East Bay, Temple Isaiah features a gorgeous backdrop of floor to ceiling stained glass and an art deco free-standing ark of frosted etched glass with metal framework. My favorite feature at Temple Isaiah is definitely the stained glass windows. While it can be challenging to photograph people against such a bright background, I’ve gotten some amazing shots of the kids holding the Torah behind the ark with all the vibrant colors behind them.
Congregation B’nai Tikvah, Walnut Creek
B’nai Tikvah is set high up on a hill and features an outdoor amphitheater surrounded by sprawling oak trees. The synagogue has one of the most stunning outdoor spaces I’ve ever had the opportunity to use as a background for family portraits before the service.
What I love most about B’nai Tikvah is that the sanctuary brings the feel of the outdoors inside with lots of natural light and a round Star of David window high above the ark looking out to the trees. During the morning service, I can always count on a bright stream of light to shine on the Bar/Bat Mitzvah family just as the parents are giving their speech.
Congregation Beth Emek, Pleasanton
Beth Emek has an awesome craftsman-style look with a wood beamed ceiling and a lovely stained glass ark with vining flower motif. My favorite thing about Beth Emek – the natural light that comes in from all angles and gives the room a very bright and cheerful feel.
Congregation Beth Chaim, Danville
Beth Chaim’s colorful art glass ark makes for some striking photographs. My favorite thing about Beth Chaim – Rabbi Dan! Anyone who’s ever attended one of his B’nai Mitzvah services will tell you the same thing – he has a way of making everyone feel included and evokes the warmest of emotions. Many joyful tears have been shed at Beth Chaim – including mine! And Beth Chaim happens to be my synagogue. My daughter became a Bat Mitzvah here, and both my parents had their B’nai Mitzvah here as adults.
Temple Beth Abraham, Oakland
Because Beth Abraham is a conservative synagogue, Saturday photography is not allowed. However, I had the rare opportunity to photograph here during a Monday Bar Mitzvah. The colors in this synagogue are so beautiful together and the large gold doors to the ark cast a warm light around the room. Being an older synagogue, there was character not just in the sanctuary, but throughout the entire building. Curved stairways, stained glass art, a round half-circle main entrance with old wooden doors. But what I loved most about this synagogue was actually a small detail that made a big difference - there are small reading lights placed on each podium that cast a warm glow onto whoever is standing in front of them. Really cool looking when the Bar/Bat Mitzvah child is reading from the Torah.
Congregation Kol Shofar, Tiburon
Congregation Kol Shofar recently underwent a major renovation and in the interim, services were temporarily held in the office space being used by the religious school. The very first Bat Mitzvah I ever photographed on my own was in that temporary facility. Needless to say, when I got the call to shoot a mitzvah in the newly renovated building, I could not wait to see it! My favorite feature of the new Kol Shofar is that it is one of the few synagogues that has a sanctuary in the round. A 2-sided bimah (pulpit) stands right in the center of the room. It also features a beautiful copper lined ark with etched glass doors, skylights, and walls of warm copper mixed with gold, and sage green that photograph so beautifully.
Peninsula Temple Beth El, San Mateo
Peninsula Temple Beth El (or PTBE) has SO many beautiful elements that all work together to make you feel so good when you walk in. Colored art glass streams a rainbow of light through the high ceiling windows and the doors to the ark are decorated with hanging squares of colored art glass. The light colored wood used throughout adds to the bright cheery atmosphere. Photography is not allowed during the service, but what is allowed is my favorite thing about photographing at this synagogue – I get to take pictures in the Rabbi’s office before the service as he’s preparing the family and giving the Bar/Bat Mitzvah child their Tallit (prayer shawl). The moments that occur in that office are priceless!
Peninsula Temple Sholom, Burlingame
Artistic metal work forms the backdrop to this sanctuary and makes for very interesting photographs. The earth tones and wood textures fill the room with warmth. My favorite thing about this temple – the lovely music played during the service and the amazing sound system. They actually have a professional soundboard in the back of the sanctuary. The cantor is an excellent guitar player and always sings a song specially chosen just for the Bar/Bat Mitzvah child.
Congregation Beth Am, Los Altos Hills
As a child, I remember going to a Bar Mitzvah at Beth Am where I had family who were members. Coming back to photograph here for the first time was really special and I’ve been back several times since. Beth Am is another synagogue that has amazing natural light in the sanctuary. What I love most about it though are the colorful cloth Torah covers and whimsical crowns. They are the most unusual I’ve ever seen. The Torahs are mounted free-standing against a stone wall and covered by a beautiful tapestry-like curtain.
Congregation Sinai, San Jose
Congregation Sinai is another conservative synagogue which allows pictures during the rehearsal only. A unique feature of this synagogue is the 2nd story balcony seating with high windows that stream in really cool directional light, casting shadows across the sanctuary floor.
The ark is also very unique, set inside a stone arch that reminds me of the Jerusalem buildings you see on Rosh Hashanah (New Year’s) cards. I love playing with composition in this synagogue using the arch and ark offset in the background.
There are SO many more synagogues around the San Francisco Bay Area – too many to fit into one blog post! Some I’ve worked in and others I have yet to see. The very large older synagogues in San Francisco like Temple Emanu-El and Congregation Sherith Israel (where my parents were married) are full of history, artistry, and style, and definitely worth a visit. But don’t overlook the smaller lesser known synagogues as they each have something unique to offer.
I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into some of the Synagogues Around San Francisco Bay. Would love to hear which one you belong to or have visited, and what you love most about them. Just leave your comments below.