After enriching 3-year eye-opener, consul general is heading home

Daniel Shek acted as if it were the last time he would ever invite a reporter into his downtown San Francisco office. For good reason — it probably was.

The consul general of Israel raised the blinds, and with a sweeping motion of his hand, showed off the view from the 21st floor: the Transamerica building, Coit Tower and the bay beyond.

"It's the nicest view that any Israeli consul general has anywhere in the world," he said. "When I had to really concentrate, I had to pull down the shades to work."

If the ubiquity of Shek and his wife, Marie, at Bay Area events in the past three years is any indication, it seems as if he probably had those blinds drawn most of the time.

Now, after three years of serving as the consul general of Israel for the Pacific Northwest, Shek, his wife and two sons are returning to Israel next week. And judging by his opening statement, he's already feeling a bit nostalgic for a place he hasn't left yet.

Shek's career in diplomacy had brought him to the United States before but never for prolonged periods.

"If I had to sum it up, I'd say this was a three-yearlong eye-opener for me, an ongoing learning experience," he said. That education, he added, was ending only because he was leaving, and would have continued if he were staying longer.

Shek will remain in the foreign ministry upon his return, but his job duties will turn toward Europe, as he will deal mostly with countries belonging to the European Union. He will continue to work on the American-Israeli relationship out of personal interest though. After his tenure here, he believes more than ever how much the two countries need each other, and more specifically, how much American Jews need Israel and vice versa.

"In a community that is so well-organized, Israel should be an instinctive permanent fixture for everyone and it's not," he said.

Calling the U.S.-Israeli relationship an existential one, he said the burden of maintaining strong ties fell more upon the Jewish state.

"We can't eternally live on the luxury of 'you should admire us,' which was the predominant feeling there," said Shek. "We have to renew and rejuvenate this relationship, otherwise we'll find out the substance has become anachronistic and no longer meaningful to either side."

Shek said he tried to represent today's Israel as truthfully as he could.

"I think more people in the Bay Area identify Israel as a high-tech hub rather than a trouble spot," he said, which he viewed as a positive change over the past few years.

Calling the United States "the second most comfortable place to live as a Jew," Shek pointed to the 100 or so Israeli companies that have offices in Silicon Valley. He also said the job of consul general acting as part-time shaliach, or emissary for emigration, has changed over the years.

"I still believe that the best way to live a full, satisfying life as a Jew is to live in Israel, but I don't believe it's the only way," he said.

Unlike in the old days, when the Israeli brand of Zionist ideology meant believing that all Jews should move to Israel, the numbers of Israelis living abroad has forced a new way of thinking in Israel: that living in the diaspora can be a valid choice.

"In principle, I would feel great if all Jews would move to Israel, but it's not realistic, and it's not the basis for a relationship," he said.

Instead, Shek said, while Israel remains the "centerpiece of world Jewry," Israel should realize it has a vested interest in seeing Jewish communities in the diaspora flourish.

And, a growing self-confidence in Israel leads Israelis to think better of their fellow citizens who have chosen to live abroad.

"While you can express sadness that so many are here, you can't delegitimize them," he said. Although he would be glad to help any Israeli who decided to go back, he believes it is equally important to help Israelis here maintain a strong connection to their homeland, and ensure it will be equally strong with their children.

Jewish communities abroad and Israel are both struggling with identity issues and priorities, he said. And each can play a role in helping to define the other.

Shek said that just as he was required to represent Israel to the community here as consul general, it was equally important to relay Bay Area concerns to Israelis.

He was continually surprised and touched by the deep affinity so many Americans have toward the Jewish state, perhaps because of its pioneer history.

While he enjoyed close ties to the Bay Area, Shek was equally moved by people he met in the outreaches of the region he served, in such areas as Alaska and Montana. Although many of them lived in tiny Jewish communities, they still managed to maintain strong Jewish identities, and were grateful that he made the effort to visit them, he said.

One woman in particular, relocated to Montana from Chicago, told him "only when I moved here did I have a full Jewish life." Shek didn't understand her until she explained that she felt closer to God surrounded by the mountains in Montana, than she ever did in the Midwest. "Who says that God lives in a multimillion dollar synagogue in Chicago?" she told him.

While being a representative of the Jewish state wasn't always easy in the Bay Area, where people could be vociferous in their criticism of Israel, Shek said he had made friends among those of all political opinions, and even enjoyed being part of such a lively debate.

Shek thanked his "No. 2," Eran Etzion, vice consul general, who also just returned home, and the rest of his team. And both he and his wife Marie said they were indebted to Janice Brenner, Shek's assistant, for being a conduit between them and the community.

Being here, he said, while gazing out toward the bay, was "such an enriching and heartwarming experience."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."