S.F. Jewish Democratic club grows in 20 years from grassroots to major muscle

In the early years of the Raoul Wallenberg Jewish Democratic Club, its founders decided to organize their first fund-raiser dinner.

“We knew nothing about having annual dinners or how you invite people,” recalled Natalie Berg, a past president of the San Francisco club and now president of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

They decided they would honor every Jewish legislator in California.

“We thought that you invite them and they all come. We didn’t know enough to call their scheduler; we just assumed they were coming.”

They sent the invitations, and booked a room at the Mark Hopkins. The tickets sold quickly. But not a peep from any of the honorees.

Nevertheless, they decided to put all their honorees at one table, in the center of the room.

Amazingly, though, it wasn’t only the organizers’ lack of protocol that prevented the honorees from showing up. A major snowstorm had hit Washington, and there was a deadlock in the House of Representatives. Tip O’Neill, who was then Speaker of the House, didn’t allow any member of Congress to leave.

Somehow, Barbara Boxer — then a representative — had left Washington before the storm, and she was the only one who showed up. But she hadn’t planned on staying for dinner.

“So there was this huge empty table in the middle of the room,” said Berg, who is also on the San Francisco Community College Board. “It was so ludicrous, it shows how naive you can be when you start a club. We’re far more sophisticated now.”

Berg told that story on the occasion of the club’s 20th anniversary, which will be celebrated in San Francisco with a well-planned cocktail reception on Thursday, Dec. 18 at 42 Degrees. Berg is one of the honorees this time, and hopefully, she won’t be sitting in the center of the room alone.

The club was founded in 1983, in the San Francisco apartment of John Rothmann, who, though a speechwriter for former President Nixon, has been a registered Democrat since the 1970s. “The logic was very clear. There was a Chinese Democratic club and a black Democratic club and a Latino Democratic club, so why shouldn’t there be a Jewish Democratic club?” said Rothmann, who is currently a talk-show host on KGO Radio.

Additionally, said Berg, at that time grassroots organizing was a growing phenomenon.

“This was the first time ethnic communities were gaining strength, and we thought it was critical that Jews not be left behind. We needed some power also as an ethnically identified club.”

In its earliest months, the club was named after Rothmann’s great-uncle, Henry Ulysses Brandenstein, who had been, for some time, the last Jewish Democrat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

“There was a rather heated debate over the name and whether to include the word ‘Jewish,'” said Berg, who found out about the club through its first advertisement in the then-Jewish Bulletin. “In those days it was commonly done not to have a Jewish name, particularly in partisan politics. But we debated it and said, ‘It’s a Jewish club and we want to be Jewish-identified.'”

Rothmann said it wasn’t long before the organizers decided to change the name to honor Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat and Righteous Gentile who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews during World War II.

“One of our most moving events was when we had the consul general of Sweden in San Francisco come, and we officially changed the club’s name,” Rothmann recalled.

The club has about 500 active members today, but its power is far greater, as major candidates go out of their way to court the Jewish vote. “For a while, it seemed that there was no way that anyone would run for office without seeking our endorsement,” said Berg. “Then it kind of floundered.” But now its clout has clearly returned.

The club has always operated almost entirely on a volunteer basis, with no office and no staff. Berg said that when she was president, sometimes she’d be up writing the newsletter until 3 a.m.

“The success of these clubs depends very much on their president, and being president is not a one-person job,” she said.

Over the course of its history, the club has invited Democratic candidates to address its members, and then one of the club’s committees decides whom to endorse. The S.F.-based club endorses candidates in city races as well as those running in state and national elections. In the case of presidential elections, questionnaires are sent to the candidates. Their endorsements are then mailed to all registered Democrats in San Francisco with Jewish surnames.

Additionally, many of those who have been members of the club, have gone on to careers in politics themselves. Assemblyman Mark Leno is one example, former city Supervisor Leslie Katz is another, not to mention Berg herself, a former president of the community college board, and Milton Marks III, who recently resigned as executive director of Friends of the Urban Forest.

Now, at its 20th anniversary, the club is once again enjoying a high point.

“I think in the last few years, the club has really re-emerged to become very involved in the Jewish community and the local Democratic community,” said its current president, Phil Ginsburg. A deputy city attorney, Ginsburg, 37, has been involved in the club for about five years.

“We’ve put on a variety of educational forums, such as homelessness, the city budget crisis and public power.”

The club has also been involved in issues pertaining to Israel, and particularly fighting anti-Israel resolutions in the city, with Ginsburg noting that the club was founded at a difficult time in Israel’s history, during its invasion of Lebanon.

Rothmann remembered fighting the recall effort against then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein in the early ’80s, and later, working with the LGBT community and then-Supervisor Angela Alioto to co-sponsor an anti-hate crime law.

He also recalled fighting against anti-Israel resolutions sponsored by the cities of San Francisco and Berkeley.

More recently, the club has joined in the JCRC’s campaign against Rainbow Grocery, for its boycott of Israeli goods, and against SFWAR, the anti-rape organization that had an anti-Zionist platform.

As for the upcoming presidential election, Ginsburg said he has no idea which candidate the club will end up endorsing, especially since at the local level, often they do endorse Jewish candidates.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s (D-Conn.) candidacy presents somewhat of a dilemma.

“It’s an interesting issue, whether our mission is to support Jewish candidates,” said Ginsburg. “We try whenever possible to support Jewish candidates for office, but that’s not necessarily a litmus test. Wherever possible, we take seriously the mission to promote Jewish candidates in the local scene, but for president, I think we’ll have to choose the person whom we think has the best opportunity to beat George Bush.”

The Raoul Wallenberg Jewish Democratic Club will celebrate its 20th anniversary at 6 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 18 by honoring Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo), Mayor Willie Brown, Natalie Berg and Jewish Family and Children Services Executive Director Anita Friedman with a cocktail reception and award ceremony at 42 Degrees Restaurant, 499 Illinois St., S.F. Tickets are $75-$100. Information: (415) 370-7325 or www.wallenbergdems.org.

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."