Haifa and San Francisco: Simpatico sister cities look to reconnect

With all those local street banners, bus ads and galas promoting the sister-city relationship between San Francisco and Shanghai, the association is by now pretty well known.

Not as widely known: San Francisco and Haifa also are sister cities, and have been for more than 35 years.

A group of determined volunteers is hoping this sisterly relationship will become equally celebrated, leading to student exchanges, cultural events and mutual visits from both mayors.

Haifa is a bustling Jewish-Arab port city of more than 250,000 in Israel’s north. Officially, Haifa and San Francisco have been sister cities ever since a joint committee formed in 1973.

But in the last decade little activity took place until Gideon Lustig, deputy consul with the S.F.-based Consulate General of Israel, came to town.

“When I got here [last year] it was in the back of my mind to do something with that,” he says. “I believe sister-city activity is a symbol of a connection between people. I want people to know where Haifa is, what Haifa represents and how [San Francisco] is so similar to Haifa.”

To make it happen, Lustig asked San Francisco attorney Arthur Wachtel to revive the committee. As national chair of the American Society of the University of Haifa, Wachtel knew the territory.

He went on to recruit new members for the sister-city committee, including Roselyn “Cissie” Swig; Dan Schifrin of the Contemporary Jewish Museum; Inbal Rivlin of the Haifa Foundation; Haifa-born Joe Alouf, Ariel Notcovich and Avi Katz; and Jack Kadesh, Pacific Northwest representative of the Technion, the Haifa-based institute of technology.

“Optimally, what you hope to do through a sister-city arrangement is have an exchange on different levels,” Wachtel says, “to have different peoples learn about each other and thereby enhance each other’s humanity.”

A similar committee in Haifa is also being reconstituted.

Lustig, who sits on the local committee ex officio, says so far the group has set short-term objectives, chiefly “to make the public know Haifa is an active sister city. “

Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav, a former Knesset member, is set to visit San Francisco this fall, and when he does, he might feel right at home. Wachtel notes that both regions are home to leading universities, both are port cities, and both are their respective nations’ symbols of openness, multiculturalism and diversity.

That’s especially true given Haifa’s reputation for Arab and Jewish coexistence. “Of all the cities in the Middle East, Haifa is the city most representative of those aspects,” Wachtel says.

Mark Chandler, the director of the Mayor’s Office of International Trade and Commerce, is glad to see Wachtel’s committee back in business. He oversees San Francisco’s involvement with its 17 sister cities, among them Paris, Zurich, Osaka, and Bangalore.

He says a good sister-city relationship fosters understanding between peoples. Those connections can lead to all kinds of exchanges, some of them unexpected.

“For our city they have created many personal bridges of cooperation and friendship,” Chandler says. “Osaka gave us $500 million to help us rebuild” after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Hopefully, nothing that drastic will take place between Haifa and San Francisco. Meanwhile, Lustig looks forward to seeing the sister-city relationship bear fruit.

“Seeing [San Francisco] so enthusiastic about the development is the most important thing,” he says. “This is a very important way the public can really get to know about Israel.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.