No sweat for Newsom: S.F. mayor makes history with visit to Holy Land

Leave it to a big city mayor to notice the little things, even in an old city.

Visiting Israel for the first time this week, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom began his first day with a three-hour walking tour of Jerusalem’s Old City.

The first thing he noticed: an oversized recycling bin filled with bottles.

On the tour, Newsom joined members of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s Israel@60 mission. He had told the assembled mission-goers the night before that he had always wanted to come to Israel, and now he became the first sitting San Francisco mayor to do so.

“It’s one thing to read about [Israel] in the newspapers,” he said. “But to come and see the people, to understand the dimensions, gives you a much better understanding and appreciation.”

In Israel mostly to foster business connections between Israel and the Bay Area, the mayor also visited Yad Vashem, met with leaders from the Israeli business community and visited an Israeli Arab child center. His agenda also included meeting with the mayor of Haifa (a sister city of San Francisco’s).

But he made a Jerusalem tour on May 3 his first order of business.

Both the mayor and his fiancée, Jennifer Seibel, braved the Jerusalem sun hatless and dressed business casual. Being Gavin Newsom, he never broke a sweat.

After a short walk to the Jaffa Gate, Newsom, his fellow San Franciscans and an expert tour guide meandered the narrow cobblestone alleys jammed with tourists. The scent of incense and sweat filled the air as crowds of tourists, Christian monks, hijab-clad Muslims and streimel-topped Jews crisscrossed the shuk.

Looking out onto the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock beyond, Newsom said he couldn’t help marveling at the successful governance of this complicated city.

“I have it easy in San Francisco,” he said.

At the Kotel, the mayor paid his respects, having donned a paper yarmulke handed out at the entrance.

“I didn’t realize there were 20,000 people living together across every conceivable difference, and I think that’s remarkable,” he said. “If that’s not cause for hope, what is?”

Raised Catholic, Newsom says he has a lifelong affinity for Jews. His aunt married Jewish actor Ed Asner, and other extended family members threw Chanukah parties Newsom attended as a youth. He even spent a session at Camp Tawonga, a Jewish summer camp near Yosemite.

At one of the Stations of the Cross, Newsom placed his hand on a wall stone, said to be the one Jesus touched on his walk to his crucifixion. He then placed his hands on the cheeks of his fiancée and jokingly said, “I heal you.”

In the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Newsom paused

to say a prayer at the 13th Station of the Cross.

Later he reflected on his experience. “Growing up in the Bay Area, I’ve never understood the obsession of focusing on people’s differences,” he said. “There’s something inherent about growing up in there where I celebrated all those interesting differences. This was affirmed in the Old City.”

Newsom expects criticism in San Francisco for making the trip, both for fiscal reasons (the trip was paid for with privately raised funds) and for visiting a state reviled by many in the region.

But the mayor thinks trips like this are critical to his job performance.

“We’re a city where 46 percent of us speak a different language at home. It’s one of the most multicultural cities in the U.S. and it’s incredibly important that elected officials have a capacity of understanding beyond San Francisco, a recognition that we should always be looking for inspiration, and that we’re all in this together.”

And as for the city’s chief executive being out of the city for an extended period, Newsom says: “It’s only great when nothing goes wrong.”

Staff writer Dan Pine filed this article from Israel, where he is on an Israel@60 mission with the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

Newsom goes to bat for Israel in first visit by an S.F. mayor

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.