How the 1906 earthquake shook up Jewish life here

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The earth shook, the sidewalk undulated in a frightening wave of concrete and most of the city's buildings burned to the ground. People wandered through the streets, dazed by the destruction and chaos.

It was perhaps the darkest day in the history of San Francisco: April 18, 1906. The Big One.

Still, according to San Francisco historian and author of "Our City: The Jews of San Francisco," the 1906 earthquake marks a critical moment in the history of the Bay Area's Jewish community. Jews suffered losses, pulled together and in the case of one man, helped save the city from financial ruin.

"A good many Jewish pioneers lost their homes in the fire," says Irena Narell, who lives in Oakland and wrote extensively about the earthquake in her detailed history of Bay Area Jews.

"They lost photos of their families. [They lost] their homes, businesses. They had to rebuild."

Along with the rest of the city, that's what Jews tried to do. Hundreds of displaced citizens set up temporary beds at the homes of prominent Jews such as Bella and Mortimer Fleishhacker and J.B. Levison.

It was Levison who provided shelter to the city's battered economy.

As head of Fireman's Fund, a national insurance company based in San Francisco, Levison was in the unenviable position of watching his company go bankrupt, unable to pay off all the claims resulting from the earthquake and fire.

At first, he decided to cleave the company into two firms, hoping to protect the new one from the claims of the old.

To this effort, the San Francisco Examiner responded with a series of scathing editorials by Jewish writer Charlie Michelson (the younger brother of Nobel Prize-winning scientist Albert Michelson).

"California's Financial Honor Covered with Mud by the Fireman's Fund," read the headline of one such editorial. The journalist accused Levison of fraudulent conduct, saying the company's reorganization was designed to cheat claimants.

Narell contends, however, that Fireman's Fund was losing money so fast the company was barely afloat. That's when Levison came up with the idea of offering claimants the opportunity to take part of their reimbursement in the form of stock.

He persuaded policyholders to accept about half of their settlements in cash, the other in stock.

"The scheme worked brilliantly," according to Narell. Firemen's Fund survived, paid off all of its obligations and made money for shareholders and claimants alike. In fact, the company's stock more than tripled in value over the next three decades, says Narell.

"The Fund's stubborn refusal to disappear became the vital segment in the city's courageous network of recovery," Narell writes in "Our City."

According to the author, Jews were also involved in another aspect of San Francisco's recovery. Narell cites the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition as a turning point. The fair brought music, art, tourists and dollars from around the world and showed them that the city was still alive.

Jewish leaders, including Leon Sloss, were key in organizing the event and in bringing it to the Bay Area, says Narell.

"It was a coming back from the ashes for the city — and a lot of prominent Jews were involved."

The Jewish community rebuilt its synagogues and institutions. Levison went on to serve as president of the board of the Mount Zion Hospital Association from 1907 to 1927. And the city survived to live through another Big One.

The insurance man also came up with another idea for Fireman's Fund that wasn't half bad — insurance for automobiles.