Local Jewish History
Temecula, Murrieta, and Lake Elsinore all have some fascinating Jewish history!
According to popular legend, the name Temecula comes from an ancient Indian word, Temeku, which means “the place where the sun breaks through and shines on the white mist.” An apt description for this beautiful valley.
One of the early pioneers in Temecula’s history was a Jewish immigrant, Louis Wolf, who was born in 1833 in Alsace, France. Wolf moved to the frontier community in 1857 and became involved in city and school board affairs. He became so influential that his contemporaries referred to him as the “King of Temecula.” The Wolf family influenced Temecula with their civic-minded and entrepreneurial spirit.
Wolf began his career in Temecula by partnering with John Magee to run the first store in town. A few years later, that store burned to the ground; so Wolf started his own store, which served as the center of the community. The town’s post office was located in the Wolf Store, and Wolf served as postmaster, justice of the peace, and magistrate. He also served as the secretary of the board of education, and he was an Indian trader and agent. Wolf also opened a hotel, and one reason he was so successful was that his store/hotel was located at the crossroads of two important wagon trails: the Southern Emigrant Trail (by which Easterners traveled to California to avoid the high mountains of Northern California) and the north-south road between San Diego and San Bernardino.
In 1862, Louis Wolf married Ramona Place, whose father was West Indian and mother was Chumash. Author Helen Hunt Jackson visited the area in 1882 and befriended the couple, and it’s believed that she modeled the sympathetic tavern-owning couple, the Hartsels, on the Wolfs in her tragic Indian romance novel Ramona.
Louis Wolf died a wealthy and influential man in 1887.
Also included in Temecula’s early Jewish history is Simon Levi, at one time Louis Wolf’s assistant. He also served as Temecula’s postmaster and briefly had his own general merchandise store in town. He later opened a wholesale grocery business in San Diego. He became an important force in the development of San Diego’s Jewish community.
A century later, Selma Lesser became enchanted with Temecula and moved from Sherman Oaks to a 30-acre ranch at the foot of the Tucalota Hills near Wolf Valley. An amateur astronomer herself, she initially held a monthly “star party” with the Temecula Valley Astronomers, fellow enthusiasts who met on her ranch to stargaze against the backdrop of the pure black desert sky. Lesser also volunteered at the local Temecula Valley Museum, where she discovered the saga of Louis Wolf.
In her 80s, Lesser became a bit of a pioneer herself when she decided to plant a vineyard with the help of her son, Eric. Tucalota Vineyard took five years to become productive, but in 2002 she sold her first harvest. Miramonte Winery made a rosé from her grapes that won a double gold and best of class at the San Diego International Wine Competition.
Active until the last, she died in 2017 at age 98 and chose her own epitaph: “Too fond of the stars to fear the night.”
Murrieta Hot Springs was founded in 1902 by Fritz Guenther, and his family operated the popular spa through 1970. Old postcards show the resort with a large Star of David above the main building’s entryway. Although the Guenthers weren’t Jewish, some have suggested that the successful proprietors always welcomed Jewish guests, and the Star of David was their way of showing that. Indeed, Murrieta Hot Springs was primarily a Jewish resort, and in a song parody, Yiddish comedian Mickey Katz called Murrieta “the Catskills of the West.” Tony Guenther, Fritz’s great-grandson, claimed that Murrieta helped define a West Coast Jewish identity.
Among the Jews who frequented Murrieta Hot Springs were Louis and Tillie Alpert. One weekend in 1943 they came home from the spa to find their 8-year-old son, Herb, with a trumpet. “We asked the children where it came from,” Tillie said, and Herb explained, “I rented it from school with my allowance.” Tillie asked him how long he was allowed to keep it, and he said, “Six months.” Herb Alpert grew up to be the renowned leader of the Tijuana Brass and was a cofounder of A & M Records.
Elsinore (as it was known until 1972) was incorporated in April 1888. At one time, it was well-known as a resort town and was filled with kosher meat markets, hot sulfur bath houses, and two active synagogues. Many Jews, attracted by the area’s mineral waters, would drive from Los Angeles to Lake Elsinore. The town eventually had a thriving Jewish community of mostly retirees who had settled there after World War II.
During the 1950s and 1960s, more than 1,000 Jewish residents practiced their faith in this community. One of the synagogues was Orthodox, and the other was Conservative. Lake Elsinore Hebrew Congregation (Orthodox) was founded in 1948, but it was destroyed by fire in 1978. The other synagogue, Congregation Beth Isaac (Conservative) was also founded in 1948. It closed in 1989. During the active years, both congregations gathered for socials and other festive activities at the Hadassah building on Spring Street. They shared meals, gave programs, and held political forums and rallies.
In 1954, the Home of Peace Jewish Cemetery was dedicated in Lake Elsinore. But as the town’s once-thriving Jewish population disappeared, the cemetery declined and fell into disrepair. In 1997, hard work restored the cemetery to its former dignity, and it was rededicated as part of the neighboring public Elsinore Valley Cemetery. Its restoration and rededication was a time to remember the many Jewish people who came from far-off Russia, Eastern Europe, Palestine, and many other lands, along with Americans from the eastern seaboard, who came to live in Lake Elsinore. The renewed cemetery honors their place in history.