Mideast negotiator finds rich Jewish life in South Bay

Former Secretary of State George P. Shultz made Abraham D. Sofaer "an offer I couldn't refuse."

Shultz's bid brought Sofaer, who was the lead U.S. negotiator at the 1986-1989 Taba talks between Israel and Egypt, to Stanford's Hoover Institution as the George P. Shultz distinguished scholar in foreign policy and national security affairs.

Just over one year ago Sofaer, 56, was practicing law in Washington, D.C., when Shultz invited him to Stanford.

Sofaer welcomed the opportunity. But the Sephardic father of six says he and his wife, Marian Scheuer, were unfamiliar with the Peninsula and the Bay Area and "we worried about the Jewish life in and around Stanford."

Not to worry, Shultz reassured them, noting that the area included "many Jews who were active socially and professionally, [and] that I would have as much Jewish life as I want," Sofaer recalls. "And he was right."

Now Sofaer is starting his second year in the Shultz chair, which is partially underwritten by a $250,000 endowment grant from the S.F.-based Koret Foundation.

So far he has explored American constitutional law and history as well as international law, and has written much, including a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece on terrorism. He has also delivered six speeches on the Middle East, the use of force and President Clinton's foreign policy.

"My main occupation is being a scholar," says Sofaer, a Yeshiva University graduate, former Columbia University law professor, U.S. District Court judge and law clerk to Supreme Court Justice William Brennan Jr.

"It gives you a chance to focus on and learn about subjects you're interested in, and speak about them. It's an ideal kind of job."

Shultz says Sofaer has proven ideal himself. "He has been a great addition to the Hoover group. He gave some powerful testimony to a House committee on terrorism and has written outstanding scholarly materials," Shultz says. Sofaer "has a unique background, high intelligence and tremendous energy."

Now Sofaer is studying yet another kind of legal system.

As members of Palo Alto's Congregation Kol Emeth, Sofaer and his wife study Talmud in a group whose members include Stanford Professors David Rosenhan and Arnold Eisen.

"It's very interesting and exciting to discover such a detailed set of laws going back so far," Sofaer says of the Talmud. "Not that I agree with all of it, but it's very rich, and really teaches you about Jewish heritage."

Lately the Talmud class has taken up Kedushim, the "rules of agency" governing such issues as who can and cannot contract for marriage or divorce. Sofaer, who was born in India and traces his ancestry back 2,000 years to Baghdad, says the class "is an effort to understand the Gemarah [the second part of the Talmud]…in an incredibly painless way."

Learning alongside prominent Jewish scholars has opened a pathway for Sofaer and his family to enter Peninsula Jewish life, the scholar says.

"Our being adopted in that class and being adopted into the Jewish community here made our arrival so much easier to take," he says.

Other family members are exploring Jewish pursuits as well. Eleven-year-old Joseph is taking Hebrew classes at Kol Emeth in preparation for his bar mitzvah, while Aaron, 9, has started classes at Palo Alto's Mid-Peninsula Jewish Day School. Helen, 14, and Michael, 16, attended a Jewish school in Rockville, Md., before the family came west.

The family also traveled east — to Israel — this summer, where Sofaer met with partners in a venture capital fund called Inventech.

While he is also helping set up a high-tech fund that invests in "wonderful little startup companies," Sofaer looks at the bigger picture when it comes to Mideast markets as well. He is proposing a fund that would invest in infrastructure projects throughout the region.

"I think it could be very worthwhile," he says of the fund. "You could make a lot of money, you could do a lot of good, you could have a lot of fun. If that's not enough, I don't know what is."

While in Israel, Sofaer met his old friend, Palestinian leader and Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij, and they discussed the peace process.

"He told me [Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser] Arafat means it — he really wants to have a stable peace agreement with Israel. That adds a lot of credibility. I really trust Elias."

Sofaer sees "horrendously complicated problems" yet to be solved surrounding Jewish settlers and the West Bank. He is proud, however, that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators wrapped up the interim agreement in the resort town of Taba, which he calls "one of the few places people from all over Israel, the Mideast and Europe can come to the same beach and have fun."

Lately Sofaer has been having lots of fun: making candy — and Shabbat — with his kids. He's also been revisiting his negotiator roots, helping to mediate a dispute over the use of Colorado River water in California, Arizona and Nevada.

He's also been addressing Jewish issues in public forums. Sofaer is scheduled to discuss "The United Nations and the use of force in the Middle East and elsewhere" Nov. 20 at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, and "The rights of Jewish settlements in Israel" Nov. 29 at Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco.

Meanwhile, he says he would not refuse another offer to help mediate "Taba-type" Mideast peace negotiations.

Koret president Tad Taube says scholars such as Sofaer would do well to "facilitate the use of all their skills toward the reduction of global tensions."