S.F. woman to take helm of AIPAC as national president

Earlier this month, a suicide bomber walked into Caffit, a popular cafe in Jerusalem's German Colony neighborhood. His jacket on a warm day as well as his suspicious behavior was enough to prompt a waiter and security guard to ask him to step outside. They overpowered him and detonated the bomb before he could set it off.

For Amy Rothschild Friedkin, that incident, more than any other in these past 18 months of violence in the Middle East, really hit home.

Friedkin and her husband, Morton, own an apartment in the German Colony; it is their home away from home. That cafe is two blocks away, and they visit it almost daily when they are in Israel.

"It was very frightening to get all the e-mails from our neighbors and friends telling us about the incident," said Friedkin. And perhaps most remarkably, she said, "Just a few hours later, all appeared normal there; everything seemed normal as ever."

Friedkin is the first to admit that "normal as ever" is not how one would describe the state of things in Israel right now. And it is at this time, perhaps one of the most tense in Israel's history, that the San Francisco resident is taking the helm of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, becoming its president on May 1.

Friedkin is making history in the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee. She is the first woman to hold the highest lay position. She is also the first West Coast person to lead the national organization in 20 years.

And she is the third local person to lead a national Jewish organization. Rabbi Martin Weiner is president of the Reform rabbinical body, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and Rabbi Pam Frydman Baugh is president of Ohalah, the Renewal rabbinical association.

When Friedkin was elected last year, things were bad in Israel but had not deteriorated to the current status.

"Sobering" is how Friedkin described her ascension to the presidency now, though she does not think the heightened tension in Israel will change her job description much.

She expects to travel to Washington at least once a month and lobby members of Congress. Her duties also will take her to the Oval Office several times a year.

With her frequent visits to the Capitol, it wasn't unusual that Friedkin happened to be in Washington on AIPAC business on Sept. 11. She was in the Capitol building, about to meet with a Republican congressman to thank him for taking a group of his colleagues to Israel a few weeks prior.

Then, the guards began yelling for everyone to evacuate the building. From where she stood, Friedkin saw the smoke rising up from the Pentagon.

"I'm familiar with those feelings, as I've spent a lot of time in Israel, but to have it brought home to Washington is another story," said Friedkin.

She will also travel to other parts of the country, to drum up support for Israel.

Although the Bush administration has started to criticize Israel recently, Friedkin said she feels confident that the America-Israel friendship is on solid ground.

Referring to Secretary of State Colin Powell's recent criticism of Israel for causing a high number of Palestinian casualties in refugee camp raids, Friedkin said: "It's unfortunate, but it doesn't imply Israel is indiscriminately killing Palestinians, rather than defending itself. Powell understands that Israel has never declared war on the Palestinians; Israel is returning fire against terrorist organizations."

The attacks against Osama bin Laden and Al Qaida are in the best interests of the United States and Israel, she said, and because of that, the two countries share common goals.

"For the most part, Israel and the U.S. are still on the same page," she said. "The U.S. understands that Israel has the right to defend its citizens against terrorism, just as it has since Sept. 11."

Nevertheless, she said, "I think Israel is in a war really for its existence. For that reason, it's vital that the continuing strength of the U.S.- Israel relationship will be there, based on shared values and common security interests."

Although she hadn't yet written her inauguration speech, she said it would focus on the importance of getting involved in the political process.

"With the rapid turnover of committee assignments and chairs in Congress," she said, "it is important that we nurture these relationships with members of Congress to let them know the concerns of the pro-Israel activists."

Friedkin traces her Jewish activism back to when she was a young mother in Orinda.

The area's Jewish preschool was about to close because of low enrollment, so Friedkin went to the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay to plead her case.

"I told them they needed to look to the future," Friedkin said. "That it would bring in more young families. I guess I was passionate enough so that they agreed to keep [the school] open for another year."

Needless to say, it stayed open longer than just that one year. And 12 years later, Friedkin was president of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay.

"A lot of people who get involved in the Jewish community start on a local level," she explained.

A fourth-generation San Franciscan, Friedkin, 55, was raised with little Jewish background.

"It was more important to be San Franciscans than to be Jewish," she said of her family. "I really didn't get a sense of the importance of it or of Jewish identity or community until I went to college."

It was there, at the University of Michigan, that she got involved in Jewish life for the first time.

Around the same time that she fought to save the nursery school, Friedkin also joined Hadassah. She called the Contra Costa County chapter of the Zionist women's organization "a group of young women who had wonderful leadership skills, which I honed in the organization, and it gave me a lot of confidence."

Friedkin, who is a member of both San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom and Oakland's Beth Jacob Congregation, took her first trip to Israel in the late '70s, when she led a United Jewish Appeal mission.

At that time, it was "the spirit of the people, their resilience, their ingenuity, and their love of life and the fact that they're so opinionated," that impressed her most.

The trip sparked a love for the country that has continued until this day. When she and Morton, her second husband, were deciding where to get married, they chose the terrace of Jerusalem's King David Hotel.

Friedkin credits her involvement with AIPAC to, as she put it, two words: Naomi Lauter.

Lauter, who has known Friedkin for about 20 years, said she initially asked Friedkin to get involved with AIPAC because "she was a leader at quite a young age, and people responded to her very strongly."

The first regional director of the pro-Israel group, Lauter asked Friedkin to be on the board, and she's remained on it ever since, going from local committee to regional board to national board, where she's served for the past eight years. She has held several leadership posts on the board.

While AIPAC has sometimes been accused of being right-wing, Friedkin, who is an active Democrat, countered that it is just as often criticized for being too left-wing. "Some think we tilt too pro-Democratic and others too pro-Republican."

Because AIPAC is bipartisan, she said, "I think we're doing the right thing."

On becoming the first woman president of the organization, Friedkin said that "more and more women have been coming through the ranks in the past 10 years, so I don't expect that I'll be the last."

Lauter said that in her capacity as an AIPAC volunteer, Friedkin handles the position as if it were a full-time job.

"When AIPAC became her way of helping Israel, she just became devoted to everything that AIPAC does. When she does something, it's totally thoroughly. It's a great thing for AIPAC that she's doing this, and it's also an honor to our community."

Howard Kohr, AIPAC's executive director, has known Friedkin for 13 years, longer than he's been at AIPAC.

"She is well-respected and well-liked," he said. "She is deeply committed to American politics and a belief in the American political system and in the empowerment of American Jewry."

Kohr said that a strong leader is required at such a time.

"The kind of leader required now is someone with all those characteristics," he said, commenting on Friedkin's commitment and grace. "Anyone who has been in a room with her knows she brings a certain presence as well."

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."