How Bay Area Jewish journalism has survived, thrived for 120 years

Back in 1946, cub reporter Rita Semel landed a job at the Jewish Community Bulletin, becoming only the second female writer in the history of the venerable San Francisco-based Jewish newspaper.

Her initial job title: copy boy.

“I had to sign a statement staying I was taking the job of a man in [military] service, and that I will give it up when he returns,” recalled Semel, now 94 and still active in the fields of civil rights and interfaith relations.

That hypothetical male employee never did show up, and Semel served as the Bulletin’s assistant editor for five years, reporting on such stories as the creation of the United Nations, the birth of the State of Israel and the growth of the Bay Area Jewish community, which emerged in postwar America as one of the nation’s most influential.

The Jewish Community Bulletin, which later became the Jewish Bulletin and finally J. in 2003, chronicled it all.

First published in November 1895 as the Emanu-El, taking its name from San Francisco’s largest congregation, the weekly newspaper has been covering Jewish news, culture and opinion for 120 years (realizing the Jewish adage that one should “live until 120”) — part watchdog, part cheerleader, but always an independent voice.

The paper has published continuously, covering the Bay Area (and, later, Northern California) through good times and bad: two devastating San Francisco earthquakes, two world wars and the Holocaust, the baby boom, the influx of Soviet Jews, 9/11, Israel’s wars, intifadas and explosive economic growth. All of it filled the pages of the paper, which went on to win scores of journalism awards in the process.

More important, however, has been the function the publication has filled in the Jewish community: not just covering local and international news, but providing a forum for concerns and opinions, connecting a geographically disparate Jewish community, and taking a leading role in setting the communal conversation.

Danny Grossman, CEO of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and a San Francisco native, became a Jewish Bulletin reader when he was just 12 years old. He’s kept the habit going ever since.

“It was important to me to read the paper,” Grossman said, “because everyone in the Jewish community reads J. The week after, everyone’s conversant in [whatever was covered that week]. J. creates a kind of web of knowledge.”

The Emanu-El was not the country’s first big-city Jewish newspaper. That honor belongs to Cincinnati’s American Israelite, which began publishing in 1854 and still exists today.

But with the Gold Rush, the Bay Area became home to a bustling, ever-expanding Jewish community that by the end of the 19th century had made great strides. The region’s tolerant attitude allowed Jews to rise in the fields of banking, politics, business and law. Eventually the community was substantial enough to support a Jewish paper.

Jacob Voorsanger, senior rabbi at Congregation Emanu-El, took on that task. The Dutch native had arrived in the United States in 1870, eventually landing at the venerable Reform synagogue, then located in a spectacular double-spired building on Sutter Street and home to the city’s elite German Jewish families.

Stating that “intelligent and progressive Judaism should have newspaper representation on the Pacific Coast,” Voorsanger published the first edition of the Emanu-El on Nov. 22, 1895. The paper, which cost subscribers $2 a year, featured Shabbat sermons, theater reviews, jokes, a social calendar and news from around the Jewish world, including Palestine.

A little more than 10 years later, the April 1906 earthquake and fire devastated the city, including its Jewish community. Congregation Emanu-El was destroyed, its gutted edifice pictured on the cover of the Sept. 21 edition later that year with the oddly inappropriate caption: “A Jewish New Year’s Greeting!”

The paper missed only a week of publication. The following edition was a hastily printed six-page issue with a message from Voorsanger lamenting the “devastation the Jewish community has suffered,” with 10,000 left “houseless, helpless, totally ruined and destitute.” (See “From the J. archive,” 13.)

The rabbi died unexpectedly two years later, but his newspaper lived on, initially with his brother, A.W. Voorsanger, taking the reins.

Some of the early stories might strike a modern reader as, at the very least, anachronistic. A 1921 article described British novelist E.V. Lucas’ explanation for why Jews shuffle when they walk. “Jews are said to shuffle,” Lucas wrote, “because their ancestors in the desert had to push the sand aside with their feet.”

The advertisements sound quaint to today’s ears, too, with one dated exactly 100 years ago — Jan. 7, 1916 —  from the Pacific Music Roll Co. on Market Street, touting its player-piano rolls of the “latest popular hits, classics and operatics,” for 15 cents and up.

San Francisco’s Jewish community has always been different from those back East — more affluent, more Reform, more assimilated. Those factors played out in the 1930s, when even as the community was opening its arms to scores of Jewish refugees arriving from Germany and Austria, the Emanu-El — which in 1932 merged with another local community paper, the Jewish Journal — was downplaying the threat represented by Hitler.

A news brief from September 1932 featured the headline “Hitler Panic Exaggerated,” quoting American Zionist leader Louis Lipsky, who said, “The Jews of Germany have the physical courage, the intellectual capacity and the financial resources to combat Hitlerism. They feel confident that the rational forces of the nation will prevail.”

During the war years, the newspaper was filled with stories, opinion pieces and editorials boosting the war effort, decrying the situation of Europe’s Jews (though the full extent of the horror would not be known until war’s end) and looking anxiously ahead to a possible Jewish state in Mandatory Palestine.

In February 1943, the paper reported on a speech given by Brandeis University founder Rabbi Israel Goldstein at San Francisco’s Sherith Israel, in which he thundered, “Larger considerations of justice demand that Jews shall grace a Jewish Commonwealth in Palestine, where great numbers of homeless Jews, who after the war will want to go, shall have a right to live and govern themselves.”

That sentiment was not shared by leaders in the Reform community, which was still dominated by Congregation Emanu-El, led during the war years by the notably anti-Zionist Rabbi Irving Reichert. In early 1945, three prominent congregants bought the newspaper from longtime editor Sol Silverman and fired columnist Rabbi Saul E. White, who had excoriated the city’s Jewish leadership for not doing enough to save European Jewry.

It was at that point, according to local historian Fred Rosenbaum in his 2009 book “Cosmopolitans,” that the publication was reinvented “as an organ of the federation and the Jewish National Welfare Fund.” Federation donors began receiving a complimentary subscription to the paper, which arrived every week in the mail.

By the time the United Nations approved the Partition Plan for Palestine on Nov. 29, 1947, San Francisco’s Jewish community was firmly behind the notion of a Jewish homeland, a sentiment reflected in the Bulletin under new editor Eugene Block.

A headline from May 21, 1948, a week after the Jewish state was declared, reads: “Palestine Jews weep with joy as state of Israel is proclaimed.” It also quotes newly installed Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who said to his people, “We offer peace and amity to all neighboring states and their peoples and invite them to cooperate with the independent Jewish nation for the common good of all.”

“There were lots of things going on,” Semel said of the immediate postwar years. “I remember covering the arrival of the first Jews from Shanghai after the war. And there were the usual things at synagogues and organizations. B’nai B’rith was very active, as were Hadassah and the National Council of Jewish Women.”

Semel also recalls her 1948 interview with Golda Meir, then a leader in the Jewish Agency, who came to town in January as part of a hugely successful national tour to raise money for the Jewish state-to-be.

“I was with her for the day and a half she was here,” Semel said. “There was a luncheon with big givers, and a public meeting at Emanu-El. I took her to the airport. I was in awe of this woman. She was a living legend.”

By the 1960s, the Bulletin was evolving along with the rest of the world. In 1969 Block stepped down and the paper got a new editor, Geoffrey Fisher, and a new name, the San Francisco Jewish Bulletin.

One of the world’s biggest stories at the time, the plight of Soviet Jews, would soon become a fixture in the publication, thanks to Bay Area activists who pioneered the Soviet Jewry movement. Fisher’s first issue on Oct. 3, 1969 included news of a rally in the city’s Stern Grove demanding that the USSR free its Jews.

In 1982, the Jewish Bulletin merged with the bimonthly Jewish Observer of the East Bay, becoming Northern California’s sole Jewish newspaper. Two years later, Marc Klein, fresh from his senior post at the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, became the Bulletin’s new editor.

When he arrived, he found a newsroom functioning much as it had since the days of H.L. Mencken.

“There were four manual typewriters and carbon paper all over the office,” Klein recalled. “We had two ad salesmen who were paid salaries, so they sat around all day drinking coffee and smoking.”

One of the first things Klein did was dump the typewriters and install computers. In July 1995, the Bulletin became the first Jewish paper in the nation to go online.

Klein also brought in two senior staffers who, like him, would stay at the paper for decades: managing editor Woody Weingarten and Nora Contini, who came aboard in 1983 as business manager. She later became associate publisher and, finally, publisher, before retiring after 30 years in 2013.

“It was my first venture into Jewish journalism,” said Weingarten, who lives in San Anselmo and continues to write columns and reviews for community publications. “I didn’t really know what to expect, but I found that at that point the Jewish community had about 4,000 tentacles going in different directions. I recognized that the paper was a link to all those different elements, and I figured that was perfect for what I wanted to do in journalism, which is connect people.”

Contini remembers big changes in her first years at the paper:

“We were working 12-hour days,” she said. “It was in the ’80s. The Internet wasn’t around yet, so print advertising was still in its heyday. Reaching out to people created more ads. The more ads, the more editorial [space] there was. So the papers were big.”

For Weingarten, a veteran East Coast journalist, the Bay Area Jewish community offered up plenty of juicy stories. But he also enjoyed the kind of lively camaraderie that newsrooms provide, as well as the personal connections made in the Jewish community outside the newsroom.

“Some of my best memories had to do with interactions with people after hours,” Weingarten said. “That included having been a member of a poker game when the Bulletin was in the federation building. It included leaders of the Jewish community, such as [Jewish Community Relations Council director] Earl Raab and [American Jewish Committee director] Ernie Weiner. It was a great group of people.”

For several years, the Bulletin was housed in the federation building on Steuart Street, then moved to First Street, and finally to its current location at 225 Bush St., in the historic Standard Oil building.

Weingarten, Klein and Contini all cited the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the 9/11 attacks as some of the most difficult days of their tenure. Neither event kept the staff from doing its job, though the quake delayed that week’s issue by a day or two.

The paper’s next big change came in September 2003, when the Jewish Bulletin became J. It meant more than a new name. The makeover to a magazine-style format, two years in the planning, was an attempt to draw younger readers and set the tone for a new millennium.

Though the name and design changes were intended to forecast a new era, their advent coincided with a difficult period for print journalism in this country, a decline that accelerated with the recession of 2008. Newspapers around the country folded.

A 1980 staff photo shows managing editor Geoffrey Fisher (top row, left), assistant editor Phil Bronstein (top row, second from right) and ad manager Charles Block (front row), with colleagues (clockwise, from top left) Brunhilda Sierra, Peggy Isaak, Mary Fong, Marjorie Glazer and Nancy Royfe.

The recession hit J. hard as well.

“We laid people off and froze salaries,” Contini recalled. “It was painful because it came after years when we had been growing 5 percent a year. Budgeting became impossible.”

But J. survived, continuing to put out a weekly publication in print and online through the worst days of the financial crisis.

As the economy slowly turned around, J.’s editor, publisher and board of directors decided the best way to ensure the publication’s future viability was to become a 501(c)(3) federal nonprofit. That would allow J. to attract foundation grants as well as major donors, who could benefit from the paper’s tax-exempt status. In August 2013, after a two-year process, J. became a nonprofit and moved into a new phase of its 120-year existence.

“We are a community-based resource for Jewish news,” said J. board chair Marc Berger. “We need direct input and financial support from our community to be sustainable. Converting to a nonprofit enables us to appeal directly to our supporters. They get to see their dollars at work more clearly.”

Klein, Weingarten and Contini all stepped down after nearly 100 years of combined service. They made way for editor Sue Fishkoff, who came on board in 2011, and publisher Steve Gellman, who took the helm in 2013.

And there’s more change in store. This year, J. will undergo a digital makeover, with an updated, redesigned website and active social media presence that will reflect how people today communicate with each other and how they access information. Even as J. shifts into this new reality, however, the mission remains the same: to be the central connecting point for the Bay Area’s dynamic, wide-ranging Jewish community.

What is the relationship between J. and the two local Jewish federations?

Many Jewish community newspapers in this country are owned by Jewish federations. Others are privately owned, by individuals or corporations. Just a few are nonprofits, not owned by anyone.

J. falls into that last category. From the time it was first published in 1895 as the Emanu-El until today, J. has always been independent. It has been owned by several different entities, but never by either of our local Jewish federations.

So what exactly is the relationship between J. and the federations?

First, J. and the East Bay and San Francisco-based federations have a fiscal relationship. Understanding that one important way to serve local Jews is to make sure they are informed about matters of Jewish concern, both federations provide their donors with subscriptions to the print version of J. If you donate to one of those federations, and you don’t know why you receive free copies of J. every week in your mailbox, that mystery is now solved.

Let’s unpack it a little further. From 1946 to the end of 2013, the federations made yearly allocations to this publication that more or less covered the cost of printing and mailing the weekly newspaper to all their donors. When J. became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in August 2013, the federation allocations became charitable contributions (grants). The amount of funding has not changed since we became a nonprofit, and the free subscriptions to the print edition continue to arrive in your mailbox, as a benefit of your federation donation.

Second, and most important, J. and the federations share a common mission: serving the needs of the local Jewish community, strengthening that community and ensuring Jewish continuity. We take those words very seriously. As a Jewish community newspaper, we are committed both to general journalistic standards and to the needs of our Jewish community, as we perceive them to be. We depend on that community to correct us when we get it wrong.

Although J. has never been owned by either local federation, our lay and professional staff maintain close working and personal relationships. We each recognize the essential role the others play in our Jewish community, and we recognize the symbiosis that exists between our organizations. At the same time, while our missions are complementary, our goals do not completely overlap; each is free to criticize the other, which we do in the spirit of helping each other do our jobs better.

So how does J. keep in business? First, we sell ads. The revenue from those advertisements covers 65 percent of our annual budget. Second, we have the yearly contributions from our two federations, which cover an additional 10 percent of our operational costs.

The rest of our budget is covered through fundraising, which has been greatly enhanced since we obtained our nonprofit status in 2013 — donations are now tax-deductible. We have been awarded grants from a number of local foundations and family funds; we have attracted generous major donors from our Jewish community; and we have mounted a grassroots fundraising campaign through which, in the past three years, we have received donations from more than 2,000 of our readers. Those donations range from $2,500 from a handful of individuals, to $4 in single-dollar bills one Holocaust survivor stuffed into an envelope, along with a handwritten note telling us how much J. meant to her.

Each of those donations means the world to us. It tells us that we are providing a vital service to you, our readers.

One more thing: While a subscription to our print newspaper costs $49 a year, our online subscription is absolutely free. Fill out the form at, and every Friday morning you will receive an email with our top stories of the week, along with our columns and calendar of events.

As the new year progresses, we will be completely revamping our digital presence, with a redesigned website and robust social media campaign to make it easier for you to access the Jewish information you need, and share your opinions and concerns with others. We’re doing it to help you, and to fulfill our mission of informing, strengthening and connecting the Jewish community of Northern California.

Happy 2016!

Steve Gellman
is the publisher of J. Email him at [email protected].

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.