Our History

Our History

From its beginning in 1964, with 15 families meeting in shared space at the Rolando Methodist Church – to its current 471 member units (both families and singles) who worship, study and celebrate their Judaism in a magnificent $8.3 million sanctuary and social hall, Temple Emanu-El has embodied the concise and meaningful logo that appears in all its written material: “A Home, A Family, A Warmth to Tradition.”

Dynamic programming  includes lifelong learning (from a preschool recognized for its excellence throughout the San Diego community to a vibrant Torah and Hebrew School, to adult education classes covering a wide and eclectic range of topics). Temple Emanu-El was selected as one of the first seven congregations in North America to participate in the “Experiment in Congregational Education.”

Acknowledging the congregation’s innovative spectrum of Social Action programs, the Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) selected Temple Emanu-El to receive the Irving J. Fain Social Action Award. The Temple’s deep commitment to Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) involves congregants at all age levels in programs that benefit members of the Temple “family” and also reach into the larger community.

Saturday morning Torah study, along with joy and music-filled holiday and Shabbat celebrations, bring congregants together throughout the year.

A well-organized committee structure responds to the needs of Temple members and the community at large.  Committees gather information and make recommendations to the Board of Directors on issues ranging from personnel to fundraising, worship to social action.

Under the leadership of Rabbi Lawson, Temple Emanu-El embraced the traditions of the past while looking to the future – to the challenges – and also the opportunities — that would allow our Emanu-El family not just to survive, but to thrive for generations to come. In June 2012, just prior to his retirement, Rabbi Lawson and a number of dedicated members raised the remaining $300,000 to pay off the Temple mortgage. To help ensure the future for those generations, The Rabbi Marty and Anita Lawson Endowment Fund was created. To date, over $400,000 Endowment dollars have been raised.

A brief chronology:

Our History

Temple Emanu-El was founded by Rabbi Morton Cohn, who had been the Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel. In the early years, Rabbi Cohn did everything from conducting services to typing the Temple Bulletin. His wife, Sally, led the Sisterhood and Temple fundraising efforts.


Rabbi Martin Lawson was hired as assistant Rabbi. He had been Assistant Rabbi at The Temple in Atlanta, GA, a congregation of 1,400 families. Temple Emanu-El membership had grown to 120 families.


Rabbi Lawson begins his puppet theater, bringing many new families to Temple Emanu-El.


Rabbi Cohn retires. Temple Emanu-El purchases its current site in Del Cerro and congregants spend that summer refurbishing the vacant and vandalized former Baptist church sanctuary. The existing facility soon became inadequate as the Temple gained a reputation for dynamic programs, innovative worship and leadership resulting in 100 new member units. Space was rented across the street at Hearst Elementary School and at Patrick Henry High School for Torah and Hebrew School classes.


With a growing membership (250 – 300 member units), a long-range master plan for enlargement was developed; the resulting plan and campaign spanned 1984 – 1989. Phase I of the plan was completed in 1989 consisting of twelve new classrooms and three preschool classrooms, a library, conference room and administrative offices.


The Price Family Preschool and Rabbi Morton J. Cohn Torah School open in September inaugurating use of the new facilities.


With membership continuing to grow, the old sanctuary and social hall could no longer meet the congregation’s needs. Following the demolishing of the old sanctuary building and a capital campaign that raised $8.3 million, the dedication of our new facility took place in September. The building includes a sanctuary, social hall, kitchen, simcha room, storage facilities, yizkor wall, lobby, gift shop and enclosed courtyard. Its exterior and many parts of the interior are fashioned from Jerusalem stone brought from Israel. Working with architect David Singer and sacred space designer Laurie Gross Schaefer, a beautiful new structure for Jewish living and celebration becomes a reality for Temple Emanu-El.

After Rabbi Lawson retired in June of 2012, the search was on for a new rabbinic leader.  Since joining our Temple Emanu-El family in July 2013, Rabbi Devorah Marcus has led our congregation with enthusiasm, joy, humor, and song. She brings an emphasis on building our community, deepening the ties between congregants, and encouraging everyone to be life-long learners and pursuers of peace and justice in the world.

As we continued to grow, the need arose for an additional clergy member to sustain our membership and enrich our youth education programs.  We were so lucky to find Rabbi Benj and bring him aboard as the first Rabbi Educator at Temple Emanu-El. He received his ordination from Hebrew Union College in May of 2017.  Rabbi Benj’s goal is to help bring Jews of all ages closer to community, Jewish learning and a life of meaning.  He will be working with the Adult Education Committee to enhance our learning experiences, with our Youth Groups and our Torah School.

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