A lifetime of dialogue: Muslim community honors interfaith pioneer Rita Semel

Iftekhar Hai and Shafi Refai, two leaders in the Bay Area Muslim community, caught a well-dressed, 86-year-old Jewish lady off guard on April 6.

Following a three-hour interfaith dialogue program and dinner at the Islamic Society of San Francisco, they gave a special, surprise award to longtime Jewish activist and interfaith pioneer Rita Semel.

“I was completely surprised,” Semel said afterward. “I was flabbergasted. This recognition really says a lot.”

Semel has a long history of community service, devoting her life to fostering respect and communication among faiths.

The San Francisco resident is the executive vice chair of the San Francisco Interfaith Council, an organization she helped found in 1980, and former executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council.

“Just about 25 years ago, I was introduced to Rita in St. Mary’s Cathedral [in San Francisco],” said Hai, president of the United Muslims of America Interfaith Council. “She has been my guiding star, a person I really admire.”

When Semel was called up to the front of the room, she got up from her table to a huge round of applause.

And when Refai, president of the United Muslims of America, said “on behalf of the Muslim community of the San Francisco Bay Area” and then presented her with a plaque, the more than 100 people in the room — including ADL Regional Director Jonathan Bernstein, Rabbi Michael Lerner and peace activist/artist Richard Kamler — gave her a boisterous standing ovation.

The executive director emeritus of the JCRC was visibly touched.

“I can’t tell you how important this is to me,” Semel told the audience, a mix of Muslims, Jews, Christians and other faiths. “What I do, I do because it’s what I want to do, and if it has any impact beyond that, that’s icing on the cake.”

Semel has received numerous awards in her life, including the Judith Chapman Award from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s Women’s Alliance, the California Assembly’s Woman of the Year from the 13th Assembly District and the Rosa Parks Award of Women in Community Service from a coalition of sponsors, including the National Council of Jewish Women.

But the April 6 award holds a special place in her heart because it came from the Muslim community.

“What this means to me, that in spite of the headlines and the news stories, people can meet people and find common ground,” Semel said in an interview after the event, taking time to pause to receive congratulations from attendees.

“I’m not saying we should sweep our differences under the rug and that they don’t exist, because they do. But you’ve got to believe things can get better.”

Semel is a longtime believer.

At the JCRC, she launched a program to take non-Jewish community leaders to Israel. That program — involving public officials, university presidents, ethnic and religious leaders, top businesspeople and LGBT leaders — has continued for more than two decades.

She worked at the national level on Project Interchange, another program focused on taking non-Jewish community leaders to Israel — and noted for helping Christian leaders understand the connection of the Jewish community to Israel.

She was chair of the Global Council’s United Religions Initiative, and is vice chair of the board of trustees at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. She sits on the boards of United Way of the Bay Area and Catholic Charities, CYO.

“Suleiman always said that Rita is willing to help out,” Hai said, referring to Suleiman Ghali, founder and president of the Islamic Society of San Francisco.

The plaque Semel received read: “Bay Area Cultural Connections, Islamic Society of San Francisco, United Muslims of America presents a Recognition Award for outstanding service and achievement in Interfaith Dialogue Among the Abrahamic Faiths.”

With his arm around Semel while talking to the audience, Hai said, “You’ve done a lot to improve the relationship between the Muslim and the Jewish people. You’ve opened your heart and your home.”

Semel, dressed in a cream pantsuit with a rust-colored blouse and copper necklace, said she didn’t know exactly why she was ahead of the curve in interfaith relations. She credited her genes, her parent’s community-minded spirit and perhaps growing up in the melting pot of New York City.

“I was fortunate enough to be involved in the Jewish community,” she concluded. “Community relations, that’s the whole essence of the JCRC. If we’re going to survive and flourish, then we’ve got to make sure other communities survive and flourish — because we’re all in this together.”

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.