Israels new ambassador to U.S. has strong S.F. ties

The appointment of Michael Oren as Israel’s ambassador to the United States has some in San Francisco kvelling that one of their own will be joining him at the embassy in Washington.

Oren’s wife, Sally, is a native of the city. She’s looking forward to accompanying her husband to his new post, even though “it’s all so fresh at this point.”

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Sally Oren

“I know there’ll be a lot of hosting and entertaining,” Sally, 57, said in a telephone interview from Washington. “But I’m just at the very first stages. There’s still a process that Michael has to go through before final approval. Once I start learning about the position, I’m sure it will be very exciting.” 

Since making aliyah to Israel in 1981, Sally has managed to come back to San Francisco a few times to visit family and friends and give herself “a magnificent tour.”

“I get in the car and drive to all of my favorite neighborhoods,” said Sally, who grew up in the Richmond District. “We lived right around the corner from the Legion of Honor. I go there, park and sit overlooking the ocean and Golden Gate Bridge. It’s one of my favorite places in the city.”

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Michael Oren

Sally’s family was known for its local philanthropic work, unwavering Zionism and early involvement in Congregation Beth Sholom, the synagogue in which Sally grew up.

Her parents, Betty and Burt Edelstein, made aliyah to Israel many years ago. But her uncle, Maurice Edelstein, still lives in the city and is in regular contact with the family.

On the news that Michael and Sally are moving into the Israeli embassy, Maurice said, “It’s just so phenomenal. [Michael’s] a great guy and my niece is a fantastic woman.”

Oren, who moved to Israel 30 years ago and met Sally in Jerusalem not very long after, spent the last year as a visiting professor at Georgetown University. Before leaving Israel to join her husband at Georgetown, Sally was a translator and foreign liaison for Taglit–Birthright Israel, serving as the major contact for countries outside North America. The couple has three children — Yoav, Lia and Noam.

Oren, who has a Ph.D. in Near East studies from Princeton University, has written several books, including “Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East” and a 2007 view of U.S. policy in the Middle East from 1776 to the present era, called “Power, Faith, and Fantasy.”

Oren will take on the ambassador position, arguably Israel’s most important diplomatic post, with an understanding of Israel’s vulnerability to terrorist attacks that is deeply personal: Sally’s sister Joan Davenny died in a 1995 Hamas bus bombing. Davenny, a Jewish day school teacher in Connecticut, had been in Israel on sabbatical.

She was the oldest of four girls — with Sally, Nancy and Amy — whom Rita Semel said she “considered as family.” Semel, executive director emeritus of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, has known Betty and Burt for 55 years.

They met at Sunset Nursery School in San Francisco, where Sally and Semel’s daughter, Elisabeth, played together; the women are still friends today.

Sally went on to attend Alamo Elementary School, Presidio Middle School and Washington High School, all in the city. She continued her education at U.C. Berkeley, majoring in Near East studies.

Semel called Sally in Israel last week to congratulate her on her husband’s appointment. “I was thrilled because Michael is very bright and very personable,” Semel said. “He’s very well-spoken and I’m sure he’ll represent Israel in a very intelligent and good way.”

A passion for politics runs in Sally’s family. Her grandparents, Pauline and George Edelstein, promoted Zionism in the 1930s and ’40s and held leadership roles locally for many national and international Jewish organizations.

George was president of the San Francisco chapter of Zionist Organization of America, as well as Ampal, a company in Israel that invests in local businesses that eventually expand abroad. He also supported the New York–based Boys Town Jerusalem Foundation of America, which in 1948 provided a home and education for young immigrants in Israel. Today, the educational institution is one of Israel’s major technological training centers.

“My father’s whole life centered on Jewish causes,” Maurice said. “My parents’ goal was to ensure the survival of Jewish people everywhere.”

Pauline participated in the Central Pacific/San Francisco chapter of Hadassah. She and George also were involved with Israel Bonds and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. In 1944, they joined Congregation Beth Sholom, just nine years after the Conservative synagogue erected its first building at 14th Avenue and Clement Street.

Burt’s cousin, Vivian Solomon, e-mailed Sally as soon as she heard the news about Oren’s appointment.

“Everybody’s thrilled, stunned and trying to get used to the idea,” Solomon said from her home in San Francisco. “They’re moving to the embassy — it blows me away.”

She added, “I can see them in their role, not only Michael but Sally too. She’ll be a wonderful asset on the Washington scene.”