AJCongress Salkowitz leaving to take E. Bay social services slot

Over seven years, Tracy Salkowitz has come to be known by many as "the liberal Jewish voice" of the Bay Area.

The executive director of the Northern Pacific region of American Jewish Congress, she has consistently espoused a liberal viewpoint in the Jewish Bulletin, and at frequent speaking engagements in the community.

While Salkowitz claims she is part of the 1 percent of the population that actually enjoys public speaking, come November, she might find herself with a few more openings on her calendar — at least in the Jewish community. Because on Oct. 30, she is starting a new job.

For the first time ever, Salkowitz will not be able to call herself "a professional Jew." Her title will be director of planning for the Department of Social Services of Alameda County.

The transition should not be difficult. Although she has spent her entire career in the Jewish community, "an extensive amount of work I've done is working with government, and intergroup relations," Salkowitz said. Trained as a social worker, she sees her new position as "a total blending of my entire background."

Salkowitz will coordinate all short- and long-term planning, as well as programmatic design implementation and evaluation.

The department itself, Salkowitz explained, oversees all social services, from birth to death, for the county. That includes "child protective services, foster care, employment training, assistance for needy families, elder abuse and other forms of senior care."

The position appealed to Salkowitz because "I've been challenging the government for years, and this is an opportunity to put my money where my mouth is and work from the inside."

After obtaining her master's degree from Yeshiva University's Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Salkowitz went to work as the regional director for AJCongress in Washington, D.C.

At 26, she was the youngest regional director for the organization ever appointed. Her work on homelessness in the district earned her a place on the D.C. Commission on Food, Health and Nutrition.

After moving to the Bay Area, she became the director of planning and allocations at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, where she worked 4-1/2 years.

She returned in 1993 to AJCongress, where she's been ever since. "I wanted AJCongress to increase its presence as a strong, liberal and progressive Jewish voice in the community," said Salkowitz, who lives in San Francisco. "I also wanted us to provide an address for progressive Jews and an address for the general community to interface with the Jewish community on issues of concern to all of us."

Her record shows she seems to have accomplished that. Among her achievements: creating the Jack Berman Advocacy Center, which champions violence prevention, pro bono legal work and human and civil rights; co-authoring a manual for parents of religious minorities on how to deal with their children's teachers; and developing a series of workshops for schools and places of employment on religious liberty issues.

She also co-chaired Californians United Against Proposition 187, the measure that sought to deny benefits to illegal immigrants, and formed Jews for Equal Opportunity, supporting affirmative action during the anti-209 campaign.

Then there was creating the California Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion, "a broad coalition from the far left to the religious right," said Salkowitz. That experience was not only "incredibly rewarding," but "one of the most challenging things I've ever done."

Salkowitz considers one of her greater achievements as being identified as a "public enemy" in a right-wing national newspaper based in Boston. Angering people is part of the job, she said. "It's very difficult to make change without being controversial."

While many of her contacts in the Jewish community were surprised to hear about Salkowitz' impending departure, she insisted, "I'm not converting. I'm not leaving the Jewish community. I'm leaving Jewish employment."

Requesting days off for the Jewish holidays will indeed be a new experience, but Salkowitz hopes to have her new co-workers sprinkling their speech with Yiddish expressions in no time.

Salkowitz said she will miss the soapbox a bit, but she does not expect to become less opinionated. She still hopes to write an occasional piece for the Bulletin and speak out on issues she considers important.

She was recently appointed to the Human Needs Campaign, an international interfaith think tank working to redirect dollars from the military to human services.

Leaving the cocoon-like Jewish professional world "where my board members and I all speak the same language," Salkowitz said, will take some getting used to. But it's just another challenge she is ready for.

"Working in the Jewish community has been a tremendous gift," she said. "The strength I have developed comes from that experience and comes from being Jewish, the religion, our history and the people."

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."