After years languishing on these shelves in our office, the full 127-year archives of J., the Jewish Bulletin and the Emanu-El are now available online. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)
After years languishing on these shelves in our office, the full 127-year archives of J., the Jewish Bulletin and the Emanu-El are now available online. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)

Digitizing J.’s archives was a mission to save Jewish history 

It was September 2011 and my first day in the office. I’d just been hired as J.’s editor and was getting the grand tour. I met the staff, admired my new desk, then stepped into the lunchroom and stopped in my tracks.

There, atop a bunch of file cabinets, were dozens of large, black leather-bound volumes. Some were neatly lined up, others were stacked carelessly on top of each other. There were years printed on the spines: 1902, 1903, 1904, all the way to 2010. Some of the oldest covers had hardened and become detached from the inside pages.

These were the bound copies of our newspaper, every print issue going back to 1900. Slowly, carefully, I picked up the volume from 1903 and opened it. Bits of yellowed newsprint crumbled in my hand.

This was our history, the lived history of the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish community as recorded in the pages of its community newspaper. And those pages were literally crumbling away.

That day, I vowed I would make it my business to see that precious material digitized and put online. Our digital archives would be preserved in perpetuity, for anyone to access, for free. It astonished me that this hadn’t been done, but it would be done now.

Little did I know the project would take a decade to complete.


BROWSE THE ARCHIVES HERE: jweekly.com/archives


The clock was ticking as I sought funding. It turned out that we had the only known print collection of our publication, and it wasn’t even complete. We were missing the first five years, 1895 to 1899. And we were missing most of World War II, except, inexplicably, 1943.

Then, eight years ago, disaster struck. We moved our office from the seventh to the fourth floor of our building, and somehow the movers “misplaced” an entire decade of our bound volumes. All of the 1930s — gone.

At least I knew that several libraries had our newspapers on microfilm. But they were hard to access — some, like the collection at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, were only open to accredited researchers. And, as anyone who has tried using microfilm readers in a library knows, watching page after page zip sideways across the screen can set one to hurling.

As I continued my search for donors, I heard of more and more newspapers digitizing their archives. That pushed me to work harder. It’s so important to preserve this kind of historical material. Why could those others get it done when I couldn’t? When the email came from the tiny Jewish News of Virginia Beach announcing that all its past issues were now online, I gnashed my teeth.

Now, who should we hire for the job? I talked to editors and publishers at other Jewish papers and mulled it over. Then, Ken Bamberger, founding director of the Helen Diller Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies at UC Berkeley, recommended an old friend, Jeremy Hockenstein, who had a nonprofit in New York that did just this kind of work. I called Jeremy, and we clicked. Turns out he founded Digital Divide Data in 2001 as a way to lift disadvantaged youth in Laos, Kenya and Cambodia out of poverty by training and hiring them to scan and digitize print publications. He has the same kind of Jewishly inspired, mission-driven purpose that we have at J. And with millions of pages of historical newspapers digitized under his belt, he was clearly the guy for the job.

The early history of the Bay Area's LGBTQ Jewish community is chronicles in our archives — with an article on that coming later this week. (Photo/Joe Altman-California Historical Society)
The early history of the Bay Area’s LGBTQ Jewish community is chronicled in our archives — with an article on that coming later this week. (Photo/Joe Altman-California Historical Society)

By now it was 2018 and time to double down on finding donors for the project, which Jeremy estimated would cost $150,000. Some years earlier, I’d interviewed philanthropist Douglas Goldman for a profile in J., and I knew he was interested in libraries and genealogy. So with the help of Steven Dinkelspiel, former publisher of San Francisco Magazine and a board adviser at J., in late 2019 we sent off a grant proposal to the Lisa and Douglas Goldman Fund.

Success! The fund gave us $50,000, more than enough to get the ball rolling. But other priorities intervened, and it was almost two years before we were able to turn our attention to this project again. Once again, serendipity smiled; in the three years since we had asked the Goldmans for their grant, the technology used to scan and digitize newspapers had dramatically improved, and prices had dropped. By late 2021, Jeremy told me our entire project would now cost $75,000.

I just knew we could find that last $25,000. I turned to J.’s board, and co-president Carol Weitz came to the rescue. She met with Fred Levin, of The Shenson Foundation, who agreed to give us the money needed to complete the project.

Fred’s interest was somewhat different than that of the historians and scholars I spoke to, all of whom recognized the importance of our material and were eager to see it digitized. Fred agreed, but he had another, more personal reason. He was tired, he told me, of the historical focus on San Francisco’s German Reform Jews, “who did fabulous things,” he said. “But you know, there were a lot of us others, who came from the Pale, and we did fabulous things as well.”

Fred’s great-grandfather, Aaron Shenson, immigrated to San Francisco from Vilnius in 1880. He opened a kosher butcher shop, was the second president of Hebrew Free Loan, and was the founding president of Kneseth Israel on Sutter Street. “And he was just one person,” Fred told me. “There had to be many more. Where’s their history?”

Natan Sharansky speaking in front of the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco, Feb. 6, 1987. The Soviet Jewry movement was closely covered in our paper — with an article on it coming later this week. (Photo/Tom Wachs)
Natan Sharansky speaking in front of the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco, Feb. 6, 1987. The Soviet Jewry movement was closely covered in our paper — with an article on it coming later this week. (Photo/Tom Wachs)

Opening up the pages of our newspaper to the public, he said, would surely uncover their stories.

Late last year, Digital Divide Data handed over our scanned material to two hosting sites: the National Library of Israel, which presents each print issue online in PDF form, and UC Riverside’s California Digital Newspaper Collection, where the material is now searchable by date and keyword at jweekly.com/archives.

As our lead donor, Douglas Goldman was one of the first to test it out. “It is most impressive, as it is rapid and accurate,” he wrote to me. Noting that his family has a long history in San Francisco, he wrote, “Having been my own family’s genealogist since age 11, I have been using available historical records for the purpose of doing family research my entire life. To be able to sit at home and discover actual information on one’s own family and the larger Jewish and general community is a precious and invaluable tool.”

And now, here we are. The great unveiling. Everything you wanted to know about Bay Area Jewish history, and some you might prefer not to know. But it’s all part of who we were, and who we are.

We will use the archives in our reporting, linking to past articles. We know students in local Jewish schools will use it to write reports and learn about our history. We know that scholars, historians and filmmakers will use it to research projects. Locals will use it to find their family history — weddings, births, funerals. And people all over the world will use it to explore this fascinating, creative, energetic Jewish community, one with an ethos and a flavor all its own.

Go ahead. Dig in.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at [email protected].