Activist rabbi returns to Bay Area with AJWS

Rabbi Lee Bycel and his wife Judy spent their honeymoon in the Soviet Union to learn about and advocate for the region’s oppressed Jews.

Not quite the typical, don’t-forget-the-sunscreen honeymoon.

That was 1977. The trip set the groundwork for Bycel’s burgeoning interest in human rights and activism. Thirty years later, that interest has evolved into the kind of passion that engulfs an entire room, takes over conversations and transforms naysayers into optimists.

In May, Bycel decided to merge his passions — activism and Judaism — by working for American Jewish World Service. Bycel is the new executive director of the AJWS Western Region.

His goals are many. At the top of the list: Teaching the local Jewish community about the many worlds that exist outside American borders.

“The world is more than Market Street. We have every right to this life, but to be a global citizen, we have to understand how other people live,” he said. “And to be a Jew in this world, ‘Tzedek, tzedek, tirdot; Justice, justice, you shall pursue.’

“Every day we have to be active pursuers of justice,” he added. “Of course, that doesn’t mean we’ll find it.”

Bycel’s newly created position reflects the growth of the organization on the West Coast, AJWS officials said.

AJWS previously had its two-person staff in El Cerrito. Soon, Bycel said, the office will move to San Francisco, closer to the heart of the area’s activist culture and to the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

“Lee is a person of tremendous intensity, and has an ability to convey the passion he feels and would like others to share, about refugee issues in Darfur and Africa,” said Rabbi Doug Kahn, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council who was ordained the same year as Bycel. “He is an ideal choice to work with AJWS in broadening their already growing efforts around the world.”

Bycel grew up in a working-class family in Huntington Park near Los Angeles. He was one of two Jews in a high school of 2,000.

He credits his summers at Camp Ramah with instilling in him a strong Jewish identity. After attending U.C. Berkeley, he traveled around the United States for three years, working odd jobs to support his wanderlust, before enrolling in Hebrew Union College.

His first job after being ordained was as the assistant rabbi at Congregation Rodef Sholom in Marin. After three years there, he returned to Southern California to serve as the assistant dean and eventually dean of HUC’s rabbinical school.

Bycel has always thought of the Jewish community as one piece of a larger community, be it the city, state, country or world. At HUC, he asked himself: What are we doing to help our neighbors?

So began his first project reaching out through and beyond the Jewish community. He started a relief fund, which gave small grants to grassroots nonprofits. Rabbinical students then volunteered at those organizations, while he also arranged for social work students at the University of Southern California to learn about the nonprofit world by volunteering or interning at Jewish organizations.

“I think the Jewish community is too insular,” he said. “We are citizens of this community and world.”

In 2004, he started focusing more on the Jewish community’s place on the international stage. He spent 10 days — including Yom Kippur — in Chad at a refugee camp for Darfurians.

“People said to me, ‘I didn’t know there were Jews in Chad,'” he said. “And I’d say, ‘There are no Jews. There are human beings.’ I wanted to bear witness, which is a Jewish concept.”

Around that time, he started working as an advisor with International Medical Corps. For them, he led five trips to Kenya, Rwanda, Chad and Sudan, and raised $2.5 million.

During Yom Kippur the year after his first trip, he returned with a group of rabbis and Jewish leaders, including Ruth Messinger, executive director of AJWS. Their meeting eventually led to Bycel’s return to the Bay Area.

He wants to build up AJWS’ presence on the West Coast, while also partnering with existing Jewish organizations.

He’s planning another trip to Chad in September over Yom Kippur.

“Helping Israel is paramount, but we must also look to Ghana, El Salvador, Peru, Sudan,” he said. “We stand with the dispossessed because we were once dispossessed and forgotten.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.