California, Pa. was settled on a bend in the Monongahela River in 1849 and named in honor of the famous gold rush that occurred in the California Republic that year. California was incorporated as a borough in 1853. The town was a shipbuilding center for a time and later became important to the regional coal industry.
By the turn of the century, approximately twenty Jewish families lived in California. According to a 1939 survey from the Works Progress Administration Church Archives, they initially prayed in private homes or with existing congregations in nearby towns—most likely Brownsville or Monessen—until 1913, when they founded Sons of Jacob Congregation. The Orthodox congregation was incorporated on February 20, 1914, according to One Hundred Years of Progress of California, Pennsylvania: 1849-1949. The volume lists the charter members of the congregation as Max Avner, Nathan Avner, Louis Kotler, Samuel Z. Winer, Lewis Nevins, Abe Harris, Bennie Itskovitz, Phillip Caplan and Harry Silver. Through the efforts of four members—Harry Abramson, Morris Goldman, Max Kotler and Louis Zacks—Sons of Jacob acquired and renovated a two-story building at 230 Liberty Street, a block off the main business district, to use as a synagogue.
The American Jewish Yearbook listed a Jewish population of 117 for California in its 1918-1919 edition. At that time, the congregation was also operating a daily cheder (religious school) with one teacher and 15 students, according to the yearbook. A group within the congregation called the Daughters of Jacob Society was organizing Bible classes and holiday entertainments as early as 1914 and appears to have evolved into a Hebrew Ladies Aid Society of California during World War I. The group organized a religious school in late 1915 with help from the National Council of Jewish Women in Pittsburgh. The school later became associated with the Southwestern District of Pittsburgh Jewish Religious School Program. Along with Jewish communities in Brownsville, Charleroi, Coal Centre, Roscoe and other small towns in the Monongahela River valley, the California community started a Young Men’s Hebrew Association in January 1915 with H. L. Levy serving as chairman and Frank H. Weiss a pro tempore secretary. Sons of Jacob supported a full-time rabbi in its early decades. Rabbi Simon Baron led the congregation from 1913 to 1918. Rabbi Alex Spokane was leading the congregation in 1926. Rabbi Israel Becker was leading the congregation at the time of the Works Progress Administration survey in the late 1930s. The synagogue on Liberty Street included a private dwelling on the second floor for the rabbi, above the sanctuary.
California grew throughout the 20th century, largely because of the expansion of what is now California University of Pennsylvania. Sons of Jacob congregant Dr. Abraham Azorsky was president of the school’s board of trustees from 1968 to 1970, and the school later named a campus building, Azorsky Hall, in his honor.
Even though California was growing, its Jewish community got smaller. The American Jewish Yearbook listed a Jewish population of 111 for California in its 1928-1929 edition and 75 in its 1940-1941 edition. Information about the later years of Sons of Jacob Congregation is scarce. A November 1971 article from the Jewish Chronicle suggests that the congregation may have remained a going concern throughout the 1960s. At some point after that, the six remaining members of Sons of Jacob dissolved the congregation, according to recollections from former congregant Morley Azorsky in the Western Pennsylvania Synagogue Documentation Project. The proceeds from the sale of assets was divided between the United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh and Tree of Life Congregation in Brownsville. The former Sons of Jacob synagogue on Liberty Street was later converted into an apartment building and was still standing as of June 2017.