Family crisis forces Israel Center director to leave S.F.

When Lisa Gann-Perkal and her family said "next year in Jerusalem" during their Passover seder, they didn't mean it literally.

After all, the executive director of San Francisco's Israel Center wasn't scheduled to leave her three-year position until 2002. Yet Gann-Perkal, her husband Carl and three daughters, Meirav, Hadas and Shani, will be spending next year in Jerusalem because of an unforeseen family emergency.

Earlier this month Gann-Perkal informed co-workers that because of the health problems of her in-laws, Rachel and Jack Perkal of Netanya, she will be returning to Israel, where the Baltimore native lived from 1980 to 1999. Her career plans there are still up in the air.

"It's been a wonderful period of time and I was looking forward to another year," said Gann-Perkal, 42, who will officially step down on July 1 and plans to leave the country by August. "But I need to go back for them. Carl is their only son."

Founded in 1996, the Israel Center works to cement relationships between Jews in the Bay Area and Israel and to promote Israeli culture. It also arranges a number of educational trips to Israel, mostly for teens and younger adults.

Despite her abridged tenure, Gann-Perkal believes the Israel Center came a long way under her stewardship. She points out the center's budget has jumped by 50 percent while the staff has barely increased, which "means we're doing much more with the same infrastructure."

Gann-Perkal mentions that San Francisco was selected as one of four pilot communities in the United States for the Birthright Israel Program and was among the first to have follow-up programs for participants in the Israel trips.

Under Gann-Perkal, the Israel Center has increased its marketing of Israeli tours to non-campus groups. This summer, one trip is geared for Jewish educators and another for teachers of Jewish-related subjects in non-Jewish schools.

The center has also stepped up its speakers program and kicked off a film series. The Israel Center's database is now swelling with more than 3,000 names.

Stacie Hershman, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's assistant executive director and the Israel Center's supervisor, will step in as acting executive director in July. A search for Gann-Perkal's eventual successor has not yet begun.

Gann-Perkal, who has lived more than half her life in Israel, will miss much about the Bay Area.

"I'm going to miss the openness of the Jewish community here and [openness] all throughout San Francisco. There is openness and tolerance — tolerance for differences even to the point of eccentricities — that I have found wonderful," she said. "That's something I hope to take home with me. That's something Israel can really learn from this community."

After growing up with the steamy summers of the East Coast and becoming accustomed to Israel's desert heat, Gann-Perkal said she will not miss San Francisco's non-summers.

"I like it hot-hot. Somebody once pointed out to me that whenever I walk out of the office, I always choose the sunny side of the street to walk on. They said, 'You're going to have to walk through the shade sometime,'" she recalled.

"I'd been working on issues of Israel-diaspora relations for many years in Israel, and I felt I had a window to try and serve the other side of the equation. I thought I had a three-year window, but it was narrowed to two years. I had a wonderful job."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.