Jewish activist to head international interfaith group

"We're hoping to spread the word and to advance the aim of the organization, which is to bring together religious communities on the issues they share in common," Semel said.

The new chair says one of her goals is to strengthen local interfaith relations through the San Francisco Interfaith Council and the Interfaith Center at the Presidio as a model for international interfaith activity.

She will also engage activists at the local level, liaise their work with international efforts and talk with Jewish religious leaders about naming a United Religions member to represent all sects of world Jewry.

"This is what the Greeks call a chirous — defining — moment. All over the world people are realizing that religion has to be a positive movement," Semel said. "They all have something akin to the golden rule. It's a matter of everyone living up to it."

Also elected were new board president Bishop William Swing of Grace Cathedral Episcopal Church; new board vice chair the Rev. Jack Lundin, a pastor at St. Mark's Lutheran Church; and new board secretary the Rev. Paul Chaffee, director of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio.

The election of officers was a kind of formal coming-out for the group, which organized informally three years ago.

Bishop Swing first proposed the creation of a united-religions organization during San Francisco's celebration of the United Nations' 50th anniversary in 1993. After talking with other interfaith activists about his vision, Swing addressed a gathering of a religious subcommittee at the United Nations in 1995. He later made a world tour to seek commitment from leaders of the world's many religions.

At press time, Swing was not available for comment.

The group acquired a nonprofit status last December and hired Executive Director Charles Gibbs and a staff for its Grace Cathedral offices.

"What we seek on the global level is what we are on the local level," Gibbs said. "We're teaching the model of local commitment to interfaith dialogue and moving to concrete actions."

Such actions locally include the San Francisco Interfaith Council's program for feeding the homeless, its statement of solidarity against last summer's Southern church burnings and the Interfaith Center's program through which people of various religions share each other's traditions.

Internationally, Gibbs wants to add spirituality to mediation efforts in religious conflicts between the Arabs and Israelis, the Irish and British, and the Bosnians and Serbs.

The group has neither received nor solicited endorsements from governments or world organizations on its proposed role.

Gibbs praised Semel as a mover and shaker on the local interfaith scene.

"She has been a real pioneer in this work for many years. I can't think of anyone better suited for this organization," he said.

Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, also took a seat on the 18-member board, albeit tentatively. Kahn said he had been wary of joining a melting pot of religious doctrines.

"But the more I found out the more intrigued I became," Kahn said. "It is not intended to homogenize religious expression but rather to celebrate the diversity of expression and find the common ground."

Unfortunately, other Jews have been less intrigued. While there are no official tallies, Kahn and Semel are two of very few Jewish constituents in the 4,500-member organization, the rabbi said.

Kahn says he aims to fill out the Jewish ranks during his term on the board.

Semel had been a member and secretary of the board of the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California and the paper's first reporter.

Board members plan to develop a mission statement at the next international conference of the United Religions Initiative at Stanford University in June.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.