Berkeley mayor swaps hippieland for intense week in the Holy Land

No one would ever claim that Berkeley doesn't have its fair share of political quagmires, land mines and schisms.

But after returning last month from her first trip to Israel, Mayor Shirley Dean is suddenly looking at her East Bay city in a whole new light.

"The first thing I said when I came back was, 'Seeing what the mayor of Jerusalem has to deal with makes Berkeley seem like a piece a cake,'" cracked Dean.

Berkeley's top official for the past 5-1/2 years was one of 45 mayors from around the world, including 10 from the United States, taking part in the 20th annual Jerusalem Conference of Mayors. Fremont Mayor Gus Morrison also took part.

The 65-year-old Dean, who admits she isn't much of a world traveler — "I've never even been to Europe," she said — was bowled over by emotions during the seven-day Israel expedition.

"I've never experienced anything like it in my whole life," said Dean, who is a Congregationalist. "The spirit of Israel really comes through: the passion the people have for the state and for Jerusalem as its capital; how it defines them as individuals and as Jews."

From the Golan Heights to Ein Gedi's botanical gardens to an unscheduled side trip to Bethlehem, Dean said she packed in many fascinating experiences.

"Everywhere we went there were signs, bumper stickers and banners: 'Golan Heights is the nation,'" Dean said. "It's wrenching to think that people might have to give up their homes, their farms. I don't know how they would do it. Even that they're considering it is remarkable."

The American Jewish Congress and the U.S. Conference of Mayors sponsored the trip for the 10 U.S. mayors. The itinerary included more than just the expected diet of sightseeing tours, museum visits and political junkets, though.

In fact, Dean said perhaps her favorite aspect was something to which most visitors to Israel wouldn't give a second thought: finding out how Jerusalem operates as a municipality.

Dean discovered that Jerusalem has 10 school districts, that uncovering an ancient cemetery during construction can bring a project to its knees, and that Jerusalem has a requirement for solar water-heaters.

"I really want to pursue that water-heater thing and look into it some more," said Dean, who is 1-1/2 years into her second term as Berkeley's mayor. "Having a requirement? I'd like to see if that would be feasible for a place like Berkeley."

Dean also said she found it interesting that Jerusalem has most of its power lines underground, a visually friendly plan that Berkeley is already investigating. "But Jerusalem does have some pretty ugly transmission towers," she quickly added.

Dean said she was dumbstruck by the multitude of problems that Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert has to deal with.

"There are 10 different school districts, each with its own religious requirement, and he has to keep all of that straight," Dean said.

"Plus, there's a need for separate neighborhoods" based on religious differences, including Orthodox neighborhoods and secular ones.

"When we heard that, the American group of mayors kind of turned and looked at each other. To us, diversity means you intermingle, you learn about different customs by living next door and sharing your daily lives. This separate neighborhood philosophy kind of threw us for a loop."

But upon learning about some bitter disputes, such as one over driving on Shabbat, Dean reached the conclusion "that separate neighborhoods make sense" for Jerusalem.

Although Berkeley has 10 sister cities around the world, Dean noted, it doesn't have one in Israel or the Middle East. More than a decade ago, some Berkeley residents tried to establish a sister-city relationship with the Palestinian refugee camp of Jabaliya. But city voters defeated the measure down at the ballot box in 1988.

On the trip, the mayors visited a Kfar Kara, which Dean described as a Palestinian refugee camp. "It was a very sobering experience," she said, "but at the same time very exciting."

Dean was accompanied by her husband, Dan, but a press release noted that Berkeley did not fund any portion of the trip.

The mayors were scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, but "he was called away to meet with President Clinton on the progress of the peace talks, so that didn't happen," Dean said.

Still, they did meet with Israeli President Ezer Weizman and were greeted by Ya'akov Levy, the deputy director general from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The mayors also planted trees in Jerusalem's Mayors Grove, where visiting mayors have been planting trees for 20 years.

As happens with many first-time visitors to Israel, Dean was struck by the country's ability to shatter preconceived notions.

She was awed by Israel's physical beauty and its areas of lush vegetation. And on a side trip to Bethlehem, she was surprised to find that it was "not a sleepy little village with snow on the roofs."

And if that didn't quash preconceptions: "In Manger Square," she said, "there was a huge portrait of Yasser Arafat."

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.