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Earthquake Causes Only Minor Damage to Jewish Buildings in San Francisco

October 19, 1989
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Synagogues and other Jewish institutions in the San Francisco Bay Area sustained relatively minor damage as a result of the major earthquake that rocked the area Tuesday night, initial reports indicate.

Structural engineers examined synagogues and Jewish communal institutions in the San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose areas Wednesday to determine if congregants and staff members could enter safely.

Even those buildings located in badly struck areas escaped relatively unscathed, although they sustained some cracking from the quake, which measured 6.9 on the Richter scale.

“Several synagogues indicated a little bit of plaster falling from the ceilings, bookcases strewing books,” said Doug Kahn, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties.

Reached by telephone, Kahn said that in addition to the synagogues, Jewish federation buildings in both San Francisco and Oakland had only superficial damage.

Kahn, along with most San Franciscans reached by telephone, focused Wednesday on the mounting toll of deaths and injuries from the earthquake, the vast majority of which occurred when a highway collapsed in the Oakland area.

“All in the Jewish community here, first and foremost, mourn the tragic loss of life,” Kahn said. He added that it was still too early to learn the identities of the victims of the disaster.

Kahn said that as “shaken and devastated” as the community is, there is still a sense of hope and relief that the damage to homes and institutions had not been more extensive.


Temple Sinai, which is located near where the highway collapsed, had a stained glass window broken during the quake, and had some plaster fall.

Temple Shearith Israel, half a mile from the Marina District of San Francisco, which suffered building collapses and a devastating fire, was not seriously damaged.

It was the second major earthquake the synagogue has survived. Built in 1904, the synagogue not only made it through San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake, but served temporarily as the city’s town hall and courthouse while the city recovered from its devastation.

Another historic synagogue that escaped damage, Temple Emanu-El, houses the congregation to which the respective owners of the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants both belong. The earthquake put a sudden halt to the third World Series game between the two Bay Area teams.

The old building housing the Israeli Consulate in downtown San Francisco also sustained some outside damage. But there were no injuries among the consulate’s staff, said Consul Anna Azari.

When the quake hit Tuesday, some reporters at the Northern California Jewish Bulletin in San Francisco were knocked off their chairs and, as instructed, took shelter under desks or door frames. The weekly paper was forced to suspend publication this week.

A slight variation on the duck-and-cover procedure was reported by Rabbi Noach Vogel of the Chabad congregation in San Jose. “Every time there was an aftershock,” he said, “we ran to the door post and kissed the mezuzah.”


In Jerusalem, Israeli President Chaim Herzog and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir sent cables Wednesday to President Bush, expressing Israel’s sympathy to those in the San Francisco area.

“Please accept on my behalf and on behalf of the people of Israel our heartfelt condolences on the tragic events in the earthquake in California,” Herzog’s cable read. “Our sympathy goes out to the bereaved families.”

The mayor of Haifa, Arye Gurel, offered Mayor Art Agnos of San Francisco the aid of the Israeli disaster relief teams that helped earthquake victims in Soviet Armenia and Mexico. Haifa and San Francisco maintain a sister-city relationship.

In New York, Don Feldstein, associate executive vice president of the Council of Jewish Federations, said that help would be dispatched to the San Francisco Jewish community if such a need is determined.

Feldstein said that even if there are no serious, specifically Jewish needs, CJF may choose to act as a channel for donations for general disaster relief in the area. He said Wednesday that he had been deluged with calls from federations across the country offering their help to San Franciscans.

In some ways, there was more frantic concern about the impact of the earthquake outside California and overseas than among Bay Area residents themselves, said reporter Winston Pickett of the Northern California Jewish Bulletin.

“Television viewers keep seeing shots of the worst hit area over and over again,” he said, “but actually, when you’re in San Francisco, you see miles and miles without any damage at all. The quake damage was very scattered and capricious up and down Northern California.”

(JTA correspondent Tom Tugend in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)

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