This photo of the post-earthquake ruins of Temple Emanu-El's original building appeared on the cover of our Sept. 21, 1906 issue.
This photo of the post-earthquake ruins of Temple Emanu-El's original building appeared on the cover of our Sept. 21, 1906 issue.

How this newspaper kept Jews in touch after the 1906 earthquake

Just before dawn on April 18, 1906, San Francisco’s 410,000 residents were jolted awake by a magnitude 7.9 earthquake that reduced much of the city to rubble. Many of the surviving buildings were dynamited to stop the fires raging through the street.

Jacob Voorsanger, the rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El and publisher of The Emanu-El, a newspaper to which this publication traces its roots, described the immediate aftermath in the May 11 issue: “Within ten minutes everybody knew what had really happened — the fair city was practically destroyed. The subsequent conflagration only wiped out and put out of sight the horrible wounds inflicted by the earthquake. Scarcely a public or private building had escaped injury. The City Hall was an ugly pile of confused masonry; our noble temple Emanu-El showed its gaping wounds through roof and walls — not a structure in town but was turned and twisted into unsightly shapes by this awful calamity, and in the streets were the huddled, half-clad, fear-stricken masses, awaiting a repetition of the visitation, preparing for the last moment.”

One of the worst parts of the disaster was the complete lack of information. In an age before television and even radio — let alone smartphones and social media — and with the fledgling telephone system destroyed, there was no way for people to let their friends and loved ones know they were alive.

No way except for the newspapers.

Like every other print publication in the ruined city, The Emanu-El focused on getting back to business. Two weekly issues were skipped, but the May 4, 1906 issue appeared on schedule, and with a full edition of 12 pages. The Emanu-El was, in fact, the first weekly paper to return to publication after the great quake and fire.

And what was that issue filled with?

Certainly, the first page was given over to an anguished editorial by Voorsanger, who described the extent of the devastation wrought upon the city as a whole, and its Jewish community in particular. Some 10,000 Jewish laborers and their families lived in the utterly destroyed south of Market neighborhood, and Voorsanger pleaded for financial help from the wealthier Jewish communities of the East Coast, writing in that May 4 issue: “Until all banks are in working order and farther until all safes have been dug out of the ruins, the sources of Jewish relief throughout the city are completely paralyzed, and we need to invoke the generosity of our people to come to our rescue in this critical moment.”

He enumerated the Jewish institutions that had been leveled: “Temple Emanu-El, the new Geary Street synagogue, the Russ Street synagogue, the Emanu-El Sisterhood building, the Lombard Street Home for the Aged are totally destroyed by fire. Mt. Zion Hospital stands a mere frame, the interior having been frightfully wrecked by the earthquake.”

But that first post-quake issue was also filled with a large Personals section, where Jewish readers whose homes were destroyed posted where they had relocated: “Mrs. A. Rothberg is at 595 Haight street, ladies’ tailor. Hugo D. Newhouse is at the northeast corner of Pine and Octavia streets. Mr. and Mrs. Morris Levy are at Stockton, Cal. T. S. Cohen is at 1225 O’Farrell street, near Gough.”

A May 1906 personals listing in The Emanu-El
A May 1906 personals listing in The Emanu-El

Column after column, the names went on. For some, only a last name is given; many San Franciscans crossed the bay to Oakland and Berkeley, while others went farther afield, to Sacramento, Chicago and even New York. They had to let folks know where to find them, so they turned to their Jewish community newspaper.

“Adele E. Davis is at 5116 Grove street, Oakland. L. Ackerman is at San Jose, Cal. Mrs. F. B. Wolfe is at 1275 Page street. Dr. A. Eichler is at Nineteenth and Eureka streets.”

Other items in that issue, published on a Friday 16 days after the quake, detailed where synagogues had decamped, so Jewish readers could find comfort in group worship. There were ads from insurance companies, from PG&E, from grocery stores and other essential businesses, telling readers where they were now located, and Jewish relief organizations similarly placed notices detailing how the destitute could access their services.

Without a doubt, for weeks and months after the great quake and fire, The Emanu-El lived up to its mission as a Jewish community newspaper, spreading vital information and keeping open the lines of communication in a devastated city.

B’nai Brith was particularly active in handing out aid, and money began pouring in from outside sources, the paper reported. Oakland’s Jewish community stepped up to help, most notably the First Hebrew Congregation (now Temple Sinai) on 12th and Castro: “The fire raged throughout the first day in the poorer Jewish quarter of San Francisco about Folsom street. Frightened and hungry, the Jewish families old and young, almost without clothing, came to Oakland. The doors of the synagogue were thrown open at once. Old and young were given food and clothing and were given a place to sleep, with ample covering, within the walls of the place of worship. From that day onward and for upwards of a week, until the general relief committee found a place to look after them, the synagogue was their home.”

Even in those first two issues of May 1906, The Emanu-El served as a voice of hope. Yes, San Francisco was in ruins, but the men and women of that city sprung into action within the first minutes after the earthquake, showing up at hospitals and makeshift clinics to volunteer, cooking food for the destitute and showing human kindness in multiple ways. In stirring words, Voorsanger vowed that the City by the Bay would rise again, as would its Jewish newspaper:

“Today the great American city of the West, though dressed in the habiliments of mourning and disfigured by the touch of God upon her beauty, bears witness to the world that her energies are not abating, but that from the ruins will spring forth a city greater and more beautiful than ever. Towards that glorious end we are all working day and night with heart and soul and mind. Whatever little service our Emanu-El can render is consecrated to the upbuilding of the greater San Francisco and the rehabilitation of its splendid Jewish community.”

Sue Fishkoff

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