TJ Anthony, City Hall aide, pro-Israel activist, 37

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Legislative aide TJ Anthony was so moved by a 1989 Israel trip designed for non-Jewish leaders that he converted to Judaism, attended Shabbat services weekly at San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel and was preparing for his bar mitzvah.

An Israeli flag hung over Anthony's bed, and his bookshelves were lined with Jewish books and souvenirs from three trips to the Jewish state.

Anthony died Aug. 2 of Hodgkin's disease in San Francisco. He was 37.

The San Francisco City Hall staffer was known for his passionate advocacy on behalf of gay rights, social justice and especially the state of Israel.

Supervisor Barbara Kaufman, with whom Anthony worked for the past four years, says she was "his surrogate Jewish mother.

"That was pretty apparent to almost everybody that watched us. Losing him was like losing one of my kids," Kaufman adds.

Born Thesloniki Anthony in Michigan, he grew up in more than a dozen foster homes. According to Kaufman, Anthony's love of Israel stemmed from a childhood without roots.

"He identified with the Jewish people in Israel — always being dispersed but going for a homeland," Kaufman says.

The supervisor remembers Anthony not only as a friend and surrogate son, but also as a "policy partner" with an impressive knowledge of the workings of local politics.

"He had the most brilliant mind. It is such a loss for me. But it's really a loss for the city. He had a major impact on public policy."

Kaufman says he was instrumental in drafting legislation to establish the city's needle exchange program and catastrophic sick-leave program. He spent two years drafting a revised city charter that pared the document down from 370 to 80 pages. Voters approved the new charter last November.

Anthony, who once served as aide to former Supervisor Richard Hongisto, was also on the executive board of the state Democratic Party. In addition to his work for the Democrats, he founded in 1989 the pro-choice group Men Who Care About Women's Lives.

Those who knew him, however, say supporting Israel was his most avid interest, a passion immediately apparent to anyone who saw his memorabilia-filled room.

Rita Semel, former head of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, recalls Anthony's first trip to Israel. Semel led the JCRC mission that was so instrumental in Anthony's conversion to Judaism.

"He was thrilled. He was like a kid in a candy store," Semel remembers. "He felt he was gaining a family; he felt at home."

In 1994, Anthony converted, becoming a key local activist for Israel and founding member of Democrats for Israel. He worked closely with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to organize a statewide network of pro-Israel activists in the Democratic Party. Last year, he joined AIPAC's Leadership Development Program.

Even before his conversion, Anthony was vocal in his support of Israel. Jewish community activist and former government aide Julie Brandt remembers him "with a microphone, shouting about how we need to be proud as Jews" at San Francisco State University.

For Anthony, Israel was not just a country but also a symbol of the triumph of the "underdog," says Brandt.

"To him, Israel was a sacred space where the Jewish people could always be safe."

In his ethical will, Anthony wrote, "I hope that all of our community will be able to visit Israel, 'cause that's where I'll be."

Donations in Anthony's memory can be sent to the Disabilities Project of Jewish Family and Children's Services, 1600 Scott St., S.F., CA 94115.