Promoting 2-way relationships goal of Israels emissary to S.F.

Lisa Gann-Perkal had a big job ahead of her as the new director of the Israel Center in San Francisco.

But the day after moving her family from Israel to the Bay Area, she had a more pressing matter with which to deal.

Her 9-year-old daughter was spending her first full day in the United States glued to the TV, watching the media coverage of the Jewish community center shootings near Los Angeles.

"She was absorbing it all and then she came to me and said, 'Wait a minute. There are people here [in America] who don't like me because I'm Jewish? There are people who want to shoot me because I'm Jewish?'"

Gann-Perkal came to the United States largely to promote Israeli travel, culture and educational programs to American Jews in San Francisco and the surrounding areas.

But first, she had to explain to her impressionable daughter that the gunning down of American Jews wasn't an everyday happening.

"It was a difficult thing for her," Gann-Perkal said. "It made a big impact on her."

Telling an Israeli child about violence and anti-Semitism in America wasn't exactly what Gann-Perkal anticipated as her first Israel-U.S. cross-cultural experience.

What the Baltimore native really wanted to do was sink her teeth into her new job at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, which was overjoyed to have hired the 19-year resident of Israel to head its Israel Center.

Gann-Perkal, 40, replaced Shlomi Ravid, who headed the center since its inception in 1996.

The Israel Center builds connections between Bay Area Jews and Israel with a wide range of projects, including the Israel Experience for teens and the Israel Project, which provides outreach and speakers to local college campuses.

On the job since mid-August, Gann-Perkal is delighted with the scope of the center.

"The federation in San Francisco has made a very significant commitment to enhancing people's identification with Israel as a way of enhancing their Jewish identification," she said. "In only three years, they've set up one of the most Israel-oriented operations in the United States."

She is particularly impressed with the way the Israel Center introduces Bay Area teens to Israeli culture, travel experiences and kibbutz living — and how it "holds onto them when they get back and enhances their involvement."

Gann-Perkal plans to spend three years on the job, returning to Israel with her husband, Carl, and their three daughters, Shani, Hadas and Meirav.

She has several goals. First, she wants to expand and strengthen the ties between the Israel Center and Israel programs offered by other Jewish agencies, increasing the opportunities for Bay Area Jews to experience Israel.

"To coordinate and enhance — that's our job," she said.

"And at the same time, we need to do enhanced outreach — letting people know that these programs and opportunities exist. You can live a meaningful, Jewish, Zionist existence here [in the Bay Area] if you choose."

Gann-Perkal also wants to implement more programs — as well as build on the current Living Bridge program — which foster interpersonal relationships between Jews in America and Israel.

"Currently, the way many people express their Judaism is to contribute to an annual campaign of some [U.S.-based] organization," she said.

But while giving money is critical, it may not provide the benefactor with an emotional connection to the Jewish state.

One of Gann-Perkal's goals for the coming decade is a shift to "personal relationships" between U.S. and Israeli Jews — "feeling at home in each other's lives and countries."

She envisions, for example, more travel programs in which Americans get to know Israelis on a one-on-one basis. For instance, a Silicon Valley high-tech worker might spend a couple of months in Tel Aviv working with an Israeli counterpart.

Last summer, a gay and lesbian Jewish group from the Bay Area traveled to Israel and spent time with their Israeli counterparts, getting to know how gays and lesbians organize in Israel and how Israeli society relates to them. The two sides have maintained communication, and the Israeli group may visit San Francisco.

"It's a two-way relationship," Gann-Perkal said. "Hopefully, Israelis will develop friendships with people in San Francisco, and San Franciscans will have friends in Israel. And that's a very strong bridge."

Gann-Perkal crossed perhaps her biggest bridge in 1980, when, as a recent graduate of Georgetown's school of foreign service, she moved to Israel to run Jerusalem News International, a multilingual wire service.

She met her husband, who had made aliyah seven years earlier, in Israel and together they raised a family of three girls in the town of Ein Kerem, just outside Jerusalem.

Before coming to San Francisco, she was the director of foreign press relations for the Jewish Agency. In fact, she still works for the Agency, an Israeli quasi-governmental organization that funds projects in Israel (most notably immigration) with money collected largely from the diaspora.

"Israel is the centrality and the integral part of Jewish identity and experience," Gann-Perkal said.

But can't one be Jewish without having any kind of Israel experience or connection?

"It depends on what your definition of Judaism is," she said. "Some people think being born Jewish is being Jewish, and others say that taking part in Jewish ritual is being Jewish.

"But your Jewishness will be enriched immensely if you feel attached to Israel."

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.