Local volunteers extend national groups reach

"Time is pressed for everyone," she explained, "but I think when you figure out what's important, you can juggle things. You make the time."

Rosenthal has put her words into action since this past summer, when she began volunteering at ADL.

Rosenthal moved to San Francisco from East Lansing, Mich., an area with a relatively small Jewish population. She said she chose her internship, in part, to connect with a larger network of Jews. But she was also drawn to ADL's reputation as a defender of human rights worldwide.

A day's work for Rosenthal might include counseling victims of hate crimes regarding their legal rights, helping to plan a conference or lobbying against legislation like the Religious Freedom Amendment, which could endanger the separation of church and state and allow for prayer in schools.

While Rosenthal plans to move to Washington, D.C. next year to pursue a career in federal legislation, she hopes to stay involved with ADL and with volunteering in general.

"I've seen a fair amount of anti-Semitism, and had some happen to me, and it really makes you feel powerless. But being part of an organization like this means you're taking action and that means a lot to me."

Another volunteer focusing on legal issues is Fred Blum. He works for the San Francisco office of American Jewish Congress, where Director Tracy Salkowitz called him "a prince among men."

Blum, the chair of the board of trustees and national co-treasurer of the organization, has dedicated hundreds of hours of pro bono legal work, spoken at national meetings, participated in the regional Poverty Action Alliance and even offered his own office space for AJCongress meetings.

Blum first got involved years ago, when he lived in Los Angeles and volunteered as an attorney for the ACLU. When he moved to San Francisco 10 years ago, Blum realized that he could do similar work on behalf of a Jewish organization.

"It made a lot of sense to me since my Jewishness influences why I'm involved in civil rights work," he said. "Our history is one in which these laws have always been an extremely important form of protection."

Blum was drawn to the AJCongress in particular because of its aggressive role in pushing for immigration rights, religious freedom, gay/lesbian rights, welfare reform and housing for the homeless. He was personally involved in legally opposing the Mt. Davidson Cross and also helped Hillel students win a court order against San Francisco State University to remove an anti-Semitic mural that was funded by the school.

"Being Jewish is more than just saying you are," Blum said. "We don't, as a community, do a good enough job of convincing people why being an active Jew is important. Once you sit down and talk to someone, it isn't a very hard sell."

Susan Osher Epstein, vice president of the San Francisco/Bay Area chapter of the American Jewish Committee, would probably agree. Epstein and her husband were members of the AJCommittee since 1976, but in the mid-'80s Epstein became more heavily involved, joining the Jewish Communal Affairs Committee she now chairs.

While Epstein's volunteer work started with involvement in Lafayette's Temple Isaiah and her local JCC, she felt that the AJCommittee, which was founded in the 1920s as a human rights organization, offered a broader perspective.

Epstein described her work as geared toward strengthening Jewish identity by educating people on positive reasons to embrace Judaism. While this includes a wide range of outreach activities, one of her main projects has been to help plan and teach "Understanding Jewish History," a two-year program that combines history with original sacred text, inspired by Dr. Steven Bayme's book of the same title.

The monthly classes are taught by leaders in the Jewish academic world, but Epstein herself acts as a teaching assistant for the popular San Francisco course.

"The response has been amazing," she said. "So many of us feel so inadequate Jewishly — uninformed and uneducated — so to find a forum where we can build on that is fulfilling and exciting."

Harmon Shragge Jr. of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is volunteering in an entirely different arena by lobbying Congress and educating the public on legislation that strengthens U.S. ties to Israel.

Since joining AIPAC in 1989 as what he calls a "garden-variety member," Shragge has helped plan the year-long Leadership Development Program, acted as campaign chair and now serves on the executive committee, helping to coordinate regional caucuses that allow members of the Jewish community to meet with their elected officials.

"San Francisco is a political town," Shragge said. "You have to get out there and form relationships with politicians, earn their loyalty. A lot of people think that getting involved politically means giving large donations, but it's sweat equity rather than money that forms the basis of these relationships."

Shragge emphasized the importance of supporting politicians early in their careers so that later, when they are in powerful decision-making positions, "you can actively change the way they think about Israel and foreign aid."

Elliot Brandt, associate director of the local AIPAC branch, explained the critical need for young leaders like Shragge, who's 40. "We can't afford to be grooming people for 10 years down the road; they need to be integrated into all aspects of what we do. They need to take responsibility not only in 10 years, but also right now."

To get involved with any of these organizations, contact them directly. Anti-Defamation League: (415) 981-3500; American Jewish Congress: (415) 974-1287; American Jewish Committee: (415) 777-3820; American Israel Public Affairs Committee: (415) 989-4140.