S.F. leaders get an up-close look at Jewish state

Before the second intifada began, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council routinely sent delegations of city officials and community leaders to Israel once or twice a year.

That all stopped when the violence broke out in 2000. But last month, for the first time since 1998, such a mission went once again to the Jewish state.

“Our goal is to provide an opportunity for key leaders representing San Francisco’s diversity to see with their own eyes Israel and its society, its people and its issues,” said Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the JCRC, who co-led the mission with Abby Michelson-Porth, the JCRC’s assistant director. “It’s also to provide an in-depth experience that will have an enduring impact when they come back.”

Ten community leaders of various backgrounds and organizations, along with several Jewish communal leaders, including Natalie Berg, JCRC president and chair of the trip, participated. The excursion was funded with grants from the Jewish Community Endowment Fund of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and the Bernard Osher Jewish Philanthropies Fund.

“Very strong relationships are built among the different participants and between them and the JCRC,” said Kahn. “That has a tremendous mutual benefit.”

Several Asian-Americans went, as did leaders from the gay community and officials from the various school boards. None of the non-Jewish participants had ever before been to Israel. During their 10-day visit at the end of June, they toured, they listened and they met with Israelis — learning about the political situation and social issues.

For Terry Person Harris, executive director of Community United Against Violence, it was “pretty amazing to see how Israel has gone about absorbing immigrant populations into its culture.”

She also said that as an African American, she knew about the cultural diversity of Israel on an intellectual level. But witnessing it firsthand, she said, was something completely different.

“I was surprised to see as many black folks as I saw; that was fascinating to me.”

Harris said that her partner had expressed some fear about the trip as well as she herself, though “none other than what a normal, prudent person would have.”

When she first arrived, she was startled by the sight of so many guns.

“I had never seen so many people with guns anywhere in my life,” she said. “I wasn’t sure how it made me feel, because most of the people I saw were younger than my daughter, and had these high-powered weapons strapped on.”

After a few days, though, she became used to it. “As I was there longer, I began to form a sense that they were all well trained, and just because they were everywhere, it wasn’t as though there was the shootout at the OK Corral happening at every street corner.”

Harris said that experiencing Israel beyond what she read here was valuable both personally and professionally. “It was a fabulous opportunity, and I would do it again in a shot,” she said. “It will affect how I do my work with people on the left on issues of the occupation.”

Dennis Herrera, city attorney for San Francisco, called the trip “a life-altering experience.” Though he does not consider himself religious, he was highly moved by the spirituality of the place, and was struck by the diversity within faiths that he saw.

“The other thing that really struck me was the degree to which people go about their everyday lives, focusing on their families and maintaining their routines, despite the fact that there is a security situation that is somewhat unstable,” he said.

“People are so focused on community-building and supporting each other and working with each other, that there’s a real community ethic which has developed over the last 55 years of having to look out for one another.”

Other participants on the trip included Lawrence Wong, president, Community College Board, San Francisco; Fiona Ma, S.F. board of supervisors; Thom Lynch, executive Director, S.F. LGBT Community Center; Philip Ting, executive director, Asian Law Caucus; James Hormel, former U.S. ambassador to Luxemborg; Brian Cahill, executive director, Catholic Charities; the Rev. John Oda, senior pastor, Pine Methodist Church, San Francisco, and president of the Japanese-American Religious Federation; Jill Wynns, S.F. school board; Rita Semel, executive director emeritus, JCRC; and Joey Tartakovsky, activist at U.C. Santa Barbara.

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."