Beth Israel was founded in 1860 as the first conservative congregation west of Chicago. Its first building was on Sutter near Stockton. The congregation was in its fourth building at Geary and Octavia at the time of the 1906 earthquake. The cornerstone had been laid for a new building at 1839 Geary near Fillmore in 1905. The construction was almost complete when it was destroyed in the quake. After rebuilding at the same site they moved into their fifth and final building in 1908. The temple offices and religious school moved to 14th and Balboa in 1948. In 1969 Beth Israel and Temple Judea, a young Reform congregation, merged and moved into Temple Judea's buildings on Brotherhood Way. This was one of the first mergers between a Conservative and a Reform congregation. The cornerstone of the final Geary Street building and the contents of the enclosed time capsule were recovered when the building was dismantled in 1989, after a fire. Beth Israel's benevolent society, Chebra Beth Yisrael, was organized in 1861, and the Ladies Endeavor Society, later the Beth Israel Sisterhood, was founded in 1895. The Beth Israel Men's Club was founded in 1945. Beth Israel's dedication to religious education included both Sunday School and Weekday Hebrew School programs. Post-Bar Mitzvah and post-Confirmation groups served the congregation's youth. The congregation's rabbis include M. Wolff (1860-1868), W. Weinstein (1868), A. Streisand (1875), H. Grodzinsky (1876), A. J. Messing (1878-1890), M. S. Levy (1891-1916), H. Lissauer (1916-1926), E. M. Burstein (1927-1969, emeritus 1969-1975), and M. Tutnauer (1960-?). The congregation was also served by two outstanding Cantors, Joseph Rabinowitz (1891-1943), and Josef Roman Cycowski (1947-197?).
This collection documents over 100 years of Congregation Beth Israel's history from shortly after its founding. It is divided into six series: Corporate, Administrative, and Financial; Congregational Materials; Marriage Licenses; Salem Cemetery; Cornerstone; and Photographs. Significant among the administrative records are minute books from 1886-1950 and a dues ledger from 1878-1884. The bulk of the Congregational Materials series consists of files on services and holidays as well as disbound scrapbooks (clippings, letters, tickets, bulletins) documenting congregational news, events and activities for 1948-52. This series also contains files from after the merger of Beth Israel and Temple Judea. The marriage certificates date from 1882 through 1935 and include the names of the bride and the groom. The collection also has items relating to Congregation Beth Israel's cemetery in Colma. The Cornerstone series consists of material from the 1905 cornerstone for the Geary Street temple, including documents from other local Jewish institutions such as B'nai B'rith, Chevra Shaare Refooah, Eureka Benevolent Society, Jewish Ladies Relief Society, Mount Zion Hospital, Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum, the Young Men's Hebrew Association, and Congregations Keneseth Israel, Emanu-El, Sherith Israel, and Ohabai Shalome. The photographs in the collection consist of images of people, activities, and building interiors and exteriors associated with Beth Israel. The museum holdings of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life house a series of Beth Israel-Judea objects, including twelve Torah rimonim, two Torah breastplates, three Torah pointers, and an embroidered table covering that was made in 1859 by an unknown congregant of Beth Israel.