A kvelling mom: Her once gawky kid saves Hebron deal

One Marin County Jewish mother just found out she has a lot in common with Yasser Arafat.

Both think her son, Dennis Ross, is brilliant.

Having helped broker the deal on an Israeli withdrawal from Hebron, Belvedere-raised Ross is fast emerging as a mediating hero, a man highly regarded by both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Arafat.

To his mom, he's just Denny — a boy who loved to read history books, insisted on going to Little League try-outs with two infected ears, and was addicted to watching "General Hospital" every afternoon when he was on break from his studies at UCLA.

Visiting her son at his Bethesda, Md., home after one of his Mideast sojourns, San Francisco resident Gloria Cherin was handed the telephone.

"It was Arafat [through an interpreter]. He invited me to be a guest at his home, and told me how brilliant my son is. I said, `Thank you,' and agreed with what he said about my son."

Cherin, who just turned 75, raised three children in Belvedere with her first husband, a steamship executive who died 18 years ago. She has been married to Louis Cherin for the past nine years. Her daughter Judy Dobbs, 52, and younger son Jeffrey, 42, both live in Mill Valley.

Cherin says the famous negotiator, like his siblings, has always been a calm presence.

"See how gentle his eyes are," says Cherin, pointing to a photo of her son on the cover of Lifestyles magazine. "That's the way he is. I never had any problems with my kids. I was lucky. Maybe it's because I'm not a fighter — I don't know how to fight. He's not a fighter either. He's a talker."

As a student at Redwood High School, Ross talked his way into a volunteer spot in the presidential campaign of Robert Kennedy. Four years later, he was working for George McGovern, which was followed by a stint as an aide to Secretary of State James Baker under President George Bush.

All the while, Ross, 48, has shunned publicity, preferring to stay in the background. It's a quality he has likely inherited from his mother.

"We're very low-key. Our attitude is, if you do something people will recognize you for, you don't have to tell the world; the world knows," says Cherin, a slender, soft-spoken woman.

"Denny has no ego. That's very unusual, most people want credit."

With her ice blue eyes and fair coloring, Cherin looks more like an East Coast blueblood than the daughter of Russian immigrants who grew up poor in Hollywood. Her father, a nonpracticing Jew, "loved life," she says, but was unsuccessful as a maker of surgical appliances.

Still, it was Cherin's Russian relatives that attracted Ross to his first specialty, Soviet studies. Between 1984 and 1986, Ross took a rare break from politics to run a Soviet studies program at Stanford and U.C. Berkeley.

Now it is his own family that attracts the attention of the mediator. Ross recently turned down queries about taking either of two top jobs in foreign policy, one at the National Security Council, the other as undersecretary of state for political affairs. Married to a lawyer, Deborah, Ross has said he hopes to spend more time with his children, Gabriel, 15, Rachel, 13, and Ilana, 8.

Ross, like his mother, has recently become more interested in Judaism. Today, both attend Conservative synagogues with their more observant spouses.

Ross was confirmed at San Rafael's Congregation Rodef Sholom when he was 16, though he never became bar mitzvah at the Reform temple. His son has already completed that rite of passage, however, and Ross himself is now taking adult Hebrew classes.

"He's a wonderful father," says Cherin. "His daughter wants to be an actress — I'm trying to talk her out of it — but Denny took her to New York, to dinner and the theater for her birthday, just the two of them. That's the kind of father he is."

To his siblings, having Ross as a brother is alternately normal and awe-inspiring.

"I've gotten so used to seeing him on the news, hearing him on the radio, but when I was driving home from work and heard the announcement of the peace accord, heard Denny, it gave me a chill," recalls Jeffrey Ross, an assistant district attorney under S.F. District Attorney Terence Hallinan. "Wow, Denny's really done it."

Sister Judy Dobbs admits "half the time I'm in awe of him. It's incredible. I think, `My God, I'm related to this person.' It almost doesn't register. He's an amazingly intelligent man with incredible balance."

Dobbs, like her brother, is an expert at conflict resolution. She's an employee relations specialist at a San Francisco hospital, and says the two joke about their calling to mediate. "Only he facilitates on a different scale than I do," she says.

"He's doing something that has made a significant difference to humanity. I'm really proud of him."

According to one family friend, it is Ross' humble nature that makes him such a keen negotiator.

"Very often people who are not noisy don't need to prove they're running the show, [and they] have better mediation skills," says Annette Dobbs, a local Jewish leader who has known Ross for 39 years (one of her sons was married to Judy Dobbs).

"He works with both sides without getting himself too much in the way of either party. It's a wonderful skill few people have."

Annette Dobbs, who says she is "sort of like a second mother" to Ross, remembers him as "tall, gawky, quiet, studious, bright and just an all-around nice young kid."

Today, she "shepps nachas [has good feelings]" for that gawky kid turned world-famous negotiator.

And while his mother prefers to keep a lid on her own nachas, she admits, "Inwardly, I'm extremely proud. I could burst."