Civic leaders see a warts and all Israel on annual JCRC trip

The chief of staff to Mayor Gavin Newsom came back from his first Israel trip with this punch line: “Five thousand years of strife makes some of the travails around City Hall seem mundane.”

Israel “really created perspective for me,” Phil Ginsburg added.

Ginsburg was one of 15 local community leaders to go on a 10-day study tour of Israel organized by the local Jewish Community Relations Council and funded by the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund.

JCRC annually organizes an Israel trip for public officials and civic leaders. The last trip, in March 2007, was specifically for gay and lesbian community leaders.

“The idea is to bring together influential leaders of all ethnic and faith communities, and to expose them to the widest possible array of experiences in Israel,” said Abby Michelson Porth, associate director of JCRC.

The agency shares with participants that it is a Zionist organization and is coming from that perspective. Still, Porth said her colleagues feel the best way to make the case for Israel is by sharing all of it with visitors.

“We affectionately refer to the trips as ‘Israel, warts and all.’ The goal is not to selectively show Israel, but to help people understand Israel beyond the headlines.”

For instance, on the first night of the trip, participants had dinner with Israelis in Jerusalem. Ginsburg and his colleague Wade Crowfoot, director of climate protection initiatives for the Mayor’s Office, explained to the Israeli guest at their table about a recent municipal challenge: adding bike lanes in San Francisco.

“So in an effort to engage with him, we ask, ‘What municipal challenges do you face?’ And this guy, totally deadpan, says to us, ‘We don’t really like the rockets,'” Ginsburg recalled.

This year’s travelers also represented organizations such as the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, St. Francis Memorial Hospital and public interest groups such as the Latino Issues Forum and Equal Rights Advocates.

The tour included lectures with diplomats, journalists, and politicians, and introduced participants to social service organizations and public-sector officials.

A typical busy day took them to Yad Vashem, with a related lecture about the evolving understanding of the Holocaust in Israeli society; the Shalom Hartman Institute, a research and leadership center; an architectural tour of the City of David and a related lecture by a professor at Bar Ilan University; and a dinnertime roundtable discussion with three women’s rights activists that included Israelis and Bedouins.

“We were booked solid,” said Rob Black, vice president for public policy for the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce.

JCRC made an effort to introduce the trip’s participants to their Israeli “counterparts” — Israelis doing work similar to that of the Bay Area folks.

As part of Black’s job at the chamber, he works with the business community on climate change initiatives. While in Israel, he met the founders of LUZ II, a company that is building one of the world’s largest solar thermal power plants. LUZ II is a wholly owned subsidiary of Oakland-based BrightSource Energy.

“I made some very good contacts, who I hope to continue to have a relationship with,” Black said.

He also gained a broader worldview. “It was that ability to see Israel through others’ eyes, even briefly, that had a profound effect on how I view the world and [the Mideast] conflict,” he said.

Ginsburg was one of only two Jewish participants. Abby Snay, director of Jewish Vocational Service, also went on the trip and, like Ginsburg, saw Israel for the first time.

“It’s such a smart approach, to educate community leaders about how rich Israel is, that you cannot draw simple conclusions about its foreign policy, or Zionism, or any of it,” Ginsburg said. “They will all at least be more understanding of what Israel is and what it’s trying to be.”

Bringing it all back home

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.