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Earthquake and Fire

07/14/2017 09:46:47 AM


by Fred Rosenbaum

This magnificent synagogue, as you know, built in 1905, miraculously survived the Earthquake and Fire only one year later. If it had been built just a few blocks to the east, across Van Ness, it most likely would have come down because almost the entire eastern half of the city was devas-tated, including Congregation Emanu-El’s the majestic cathedral synagogue at 450 Sutter Street, which was totally destroyed.  

The 1906 catastrophe teaches us how vital is earthquake preparedness.

One is struck first by the scale of that disaster. The Chamber of Commerce would never admit it, but the earthquake and firestorms, which raged for three days afterwards, brought down more than half the city’s buildings and claimed about 5,000 lives. A quarter million people, three-fifths of the city’s population, was rendered homeless. Except for the cyclone in Galveston, Texas, in 1900, it is the worst natural disaster in all of American history. The earthquake, around 8 on the Richter Scale, was fifty times more powerful than the Loma Prieta Earthquake many of us lived through in 1989, but the fires were even more destructive. They were hard to fight because of ruptured water mains, impassable streets, and the loss of electric power and phone service. 60 blazes merged into one great inferno spreading westward.

Wherever you were in the city, you could feel the heat of the flames. Old-timers who were inter-viewed in the 1970’s refer to the calamity simply as the fire, not the earthquake.

Needless to say, the devastation brought in its wake hunger and disease as well as death and in-jury. But blunders committed by military and municipal leaders made things even worse.

It was thought the width of Van Ness Avenue would finally contain the conflagration. General Frederick Funston, Commandant of the Presidio, decided that many of the mansions along Van Ness, then a fashionable boulevard, would have to be dynamited or burned to further widen the fire break. But he was mistaken, as recent studies have shown, and all of that damage was unnecessary.

Meanwhile, Mayor Eugene Schmitz, with a basic distrust of the masses, issued a senseless order to shoot looters on sight, resulting in over a hundred killings, not all of them people even guilty of stealing.

And terror also reigned not only because of the advancing fires and aftershocks, but also due to the wild rumors that began circulating the morning of the earthquake when the city was cut off from outside communication for many crucial hours. A journalist wrote:

How widespread was the shock we wondered. Had it reached Southern California? Had it gone east? How about Chicago, New York, Seattle, Portland? Then came answers to these questions, from whence no one knew. San Jose was destroyed, five thousand killed in Los Angeles, Portland overwhelmed by the river, Chicago wiped out by a tidal wave from the lake and New York swept into the Atlantic. Vesuvius had renewed its activity and eruptions were predicted in San Francisco. You can understand our state of mind with all those stories floating about and no evidence to contradict them.

Others were convinced that the calamity was the result of Divine punishment for San Francisco’s greed and depravity, that God had wrecked the city because of its sinfulness.

None of the rabbis are on record preaching Divine retribution, they dealt not with the cause, but rather with the fact that a mighty temblor had shaken the earth and ravaged the city… and its Jewish institutions. In addition to Emanu-El, several other synagogues were totally demolished as was the Emanu-El Sisterhood settlement house and clinic, and the Jewish Educational Society, forerunner of today’s Jewish LearningWorks. The Eureka Benevolent Society, forerunner of the Jewish Family and Children’s Services, including its half-century-old trove of records, and B'nai B'rith Hall with its 15,000 volume-library were likewise consumed. The Home for the Aged was gutted and its fourteen elderly residents lived in the open air for several weeks; two died, perhaps from the stress. Destroyed too were the plants of each of the city's three Jewish newspapers. Even the Jewish Cemetery in Colma was laid waste; eight hundred tombstones were overturned and the chapel was wrecked beyond repair. None of the 190 children in the Jewish orphanage was injured, but that facility was also badly damaged.

It is to the everlasting credit of this congregation that its leadership worked tirelessly and effec-tively in the relief effort, which took almost a decade. First, Sherith Israel offered to share its synagogue with Emanu-El, although its rabbi, Jacob Voorsanger, declined and instead chose the Presbyterian Church for his congregation’s temporary quarters. The city, though, made good use of Sherith Israel… as a courthouse because so many of the municipal buildings including City Hall had been destroyed. The judge’s desk was set up on the bimah alongside the pulpit and the lawyers and the defendants sat in the front pews. It turned out to be the site of the most convul-sive trial in the city’s history, that of the corrupt Jewish political boss, Abraham Ruef, who was sentenced to fourteen years in San Quentin. Passions ran high and another Jew shot the district attorney in the head, although he did survive.

Sherith Israel’s spiritual leader then was the esteemed Sephardi immigrant Jacob Nieto, a cru-sader for social justice, who would serve 37 eventful years here, in my opinion the greatest rabbi in San Francisco history. In fact, this synagogue was built largely due to Nieto’s immense popu-larity; it was faltering before he arrived in 1893, plagued by internal dissension. At one point, the cantor’s wife punched an executive board member in the face, an incident described in detail in the San Francisco Chronicle and the congregation’s minutes.

Rabbi Nieto, however, admired by all, healed the rifts, and attracted hundreds of new members. He spoke out forcefully and eloquently for social justice as a supporter of the California Progres-sive movement, and advocated women’s rights, inside and outside the synagogue, even before women had the right to vote. An admired civic leader, he was tasked by the city to oversee the serious sanitation problems after the earthquake. Working with experts in the field, he did an outstanding job to help limit the spread of disease and contaminated water.

Emanu-El’s Rabbi Voorsanger worked feverishly as the chairman of the mayor's Hunger Relief Committee, fighting to spare the ruined city from famine, which he called “the worst anarchist in existence.” While monitoring price gouging, he set up food stations throughout San Francisco.

For the sake of historical completeness, I must say that both rabbis were angered by the lack of support from other Jewish communities, and especially with the national Reform movement, which Sherith Israel had recently joined at Nieto’s insistence. Neither the Central Conference of American Rabbis nor the Union of American Hebrew Congregations provided any aid for a sud-denly bereft Jewish community of 35,000. But they would learn their lesson and perform much better in this regard in the years ahead.

In any case, the city and its Jews recovered spectacularly. With ingenuity and determination, it was similar to the recovery from a wave of fires and other calamities during the Gold Rush era a half century earlier and the pioneers served as an inspiration. True, old neighborhoods would be lost, like the East European immigrant enclave south of Market, known as South of the Slot. But a new and even more vibrant Yiddish-speaking neighborhood would emerge in the Fillmore Dis-trict and flourish there all the way to WWII.

Nothing marked the recovery more than San Francisco’s spectacular Panama-Pacific Interna-tional Exposition in 1915, a jewel city covering 650 acres in the Marina District, one of the greatest world’s fairs ever, drawing 20 million visitors from throughout the world. The scholarly Rabbi Nieto was an advisor for the pavilion on ancient civilizations. How proud he must have been to see his city revived.

Sherith Israel was a leader in earthquake recovery in the early 20th century, it has led the way in earthquake preparedness in the early 21st century. Yasher Koach.

Thu, June 4 2020 12 Sivan 5780