Rita Semel: At 90, a tireless advocate for interfaith understanding

When a Muslim Army psychiatrist gunned down 32 people at Fort Hood, Texas, killing 13, a fearful Bay Area Muslim community braced for a backlash. Rita Semel wasn’t about to let that backlash occur.

Two days after the November 2009 incident, Semel drove out to Fremont, where the Bay Area chapter of United Muslims of America was holding a long-scheduled fundraiser. Semel stood up and read aloud a statement of support for the Muslim community, signed by the Northern California Board of Rabbis and other religious leaders.

“It was about not condemning a whole community for the things that one man had done,” Semel recently recalled. “When I, a Jewish woman, read that statement, they were beside themselves with gratitude, because they were feeling very beleaguered.”

Just another day at the office for Semel, the longtime executive vice chair of the San Francisco Interfaith Council, vice chair of the Graduate Theological Seminary’s board of trustees and member of many charitable boards.

For more than half a century, Semel has been the Bay Area Jewish community’s champion of interfaith dialogue. The San Francisco resident, who celebrated her 90th birthday Nov. 15, still drives herself to board meetings.

“Anybody who knows Rita knows that the odds of finding her at home during the day are very slim,” said Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council and a lifelong friend. “She’s out attending an event or organizing something with other community groups.”

This birthday is an occasion that Semel’s friends, colleagues and fans cannot let pass without note. The Interfaith Council’s annual Thanksgiving prayer breakfast on Tuesday, Nov. 22 is billed “Repairing the World: Honoring the Work of Rita Semel.”

Her friend and former partner in local government, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, said: “Rita is one remarkable woman. She has done more for interfaith relations in San Francisco than any one individual.”

“She had the interfaith DNA long before I met her,” said William Swing, retired bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of California and president of the United Religions Initiative, an organization Semel co-founded in 2000. “Before the URI was a twinkle in anybody’s eye, Rita had a propensity to create community among people of differing faith traditions.”

Rita Semel

The Interfaith Council and United Religions Initiative are only two entities for which Semel has proved indispensable.

Her résumé includes stints as executive director of the JCRC and as a reporter and editor with the Jewish Community Bulletin (a predecessor to j.). But it’s her interfaith work that has cemented Semel’s legacy.

“I’m very good at these unpaid jobs,” she says.

The unpaid job that consumes much of her time these days is with the Interfaith Council, which she co-founded.

Michael Pappas, the organization’s executive director, has known Semel since he came aboard seven years ago. He immediately sensed the respect she commands in the interfaith community. He remembers the time he traveled to Rome with Semel, two rabbis, a Muslim imam, a Greek Orthodox priest and two Episcopal rectors.

They composed the Bay Area contingent that witnessed the 2006 elevation of former San Francisco Catholic Archbishop William Levada to the rank of cardinal.

“It’s like traveling with the mayor when you’re with her. She is so well known,” Pappas said. “At the Vatican, someone said, ‘Who is that standing next to Rita?’ I said, ‘I think that’s the pope.’ ”

Pappas believes passion drives Semel to keep working long past the average retirement age.

“It’s her conviction,” he added. “She understands that it’s all about relationships. She invests in people. Rita sees the value in developing friendships that ultimately engender trust.”

Semel conceded that is her M.O. “Just working together on these issues, people learn things about each other,” she said, “and are open about what they are and what they believe.”

Born Rita Roher in New York City during the Warren G. Harding administration, she stayed behind when her family moved to San Francisco when she was 18, attending Barnard College and majoring in political science. She hoped to attend the Columbia School of Journalism, but World War II intervened.

Semel said her first encounter with interfaith dialogue came when she and her husband, Max, then an Army officer, spent time in the South during the war. She saw up close the region’s entrenched segregation, which distressed her. But she saw another side as well.

Looking for a place to live in Mississippi, the Semels called on a Methodist minister, who had a room available for rent.

“We had this lovely conversation,” she recalled, “and then he said, ‘Tell me, what religion are you?’ I thought this could be trouble. I said we were Jewish. He said, ‘I’m so glad. I see enough Methodists on Sunday.’ ”

Her husband was part of the D-Day invasion. While he was overseas, she landed a job as a “copy boy” (as it was called at the time) at the San Francisco Chronicle.

When representatives of the fledgling United Nations gathered in San Francisco on June 26, 1945 to sign the U.N. charter, Semel covered the event. “It was so exciting,” she remembered. “We thought it was the beginning of a whole new world.”

A few years later, Semel became associate editor of the Jewish Community Bulletin. She also began doing public relations work for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

Her workload slowed down a bit once she had her two daughters.

Rita Semel and Anita Friedman, executive director of S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services, in 1987

“We lit the candles, went to [religious] school,” said Elisabeth Semel, a U.C. Berkeley law professor. “Being part of the Jewish community was central to my family’s identity. At the core, religion in its best sense is about human dignity. That’s the thing that motivates my mother.”

Elisabeth and her sister, Jane, idolized their parents. Their father was “extraordinarily unusual” for a man of his generation, Elisabeth said. ”He was raised to expect the kind of wife that was typical for a middle-class husband of his era, which is to say a homemaker. He married someone very different: My mom worked.”

Jane used to joke that their mother’s tombstone would read, “She’s not here. She’s at a meeting.”

Many of those meetings took place at the JCRC, an organization that has always made interfaith dialogue a core value.

She started working with the JCRC in 1964, when Earl Raab served as executive director, a post she later inherited. He drew on Semel’s public relations skills to help with various projects.

This work dovetailed with her passion for civil rights. In 1963, she received a call from Eugene Boyle, a local Catholic priest who sought to form an interfaith task force on segregation in the Bay Area. He asked Semel to join the steering committee and represent the Jewish community.

“It was highly successful, and when it was over we felt we had something good going,” Semel said. “We decided to continue.”

The committee evolved into the San Francisco Council on Religion and Race, which Semel co-chaired for 25 years.

Kahn, who took over the executive director position at the JCRC in 1982, is a big fan of his predecessor. “Our families were extremely close,” he said. “Rita says she knew me from the day I was born. She’s a very honest, caring human being with a passionate commitment to making the world a better place. I learned so much from Rita, including what it means to be a thinking activist, and how to balance dozens of issues and priorities at the same time.”

Kahn recalled one example from the 1980s, when Semel discovered that the San Francisco Food Bank did not have enough fresh produce. She worked with an executive in the grocery business to put together a luncheon at Lake Merced Country Club. Sitting around the table were local grocery executives, a representative from the Department of Agriculture and Semel.

“In 90 minutes the entire issue was resolved,” Kahn said. “Produce that was perfectly good but could not go to stores would be made available on an ongoing basis to the Food Bank. Rita and the JCRC put all the right people together and it was resolved. That’s Rita: See an issue, figure out who needs to be at the table, and check it off the list.”

Semel has known more than her share of sorrow. In 1970, her daughter Jane, 18, died in a tragic accident.

“It changes you forever,” said Jane’s sister, Elisabeth. “It changes everyone around you forever. My mom found constructive ways to cope through her work. She found a way to infuse some of who my sister was into the work she does.”

The work continued.

Rita Semel visits Korea with the United Religions Council. Above, Semel speaks in 1987.

In the wake of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the relief agency Church World Service formed an interfaith committee to aid those affected, especially people who had lost their homes. As a member of that committee, Semel saw an opportunity to enlarge its scope.

This committee formed the nucleus of what became the S.F. Interfaith Council. She points to its network of homeless shelters, based at 35 different houses of worship, as one of her proudest achievements.

“The Department of Health and Human Services teases us and says we run the Waldorf Astoria of homeless shelters,” she said.

Being a Jew among representatives of many faiths on the council pleases Semel.

“There’s no question of who I am,” she said. “I’m Jewish. Working together on these issues, people learn things about each other, and are open about what they are and what they believe.”

Over the years, Semel has won many accolades, including the Judith Chapman Award from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s Women’s Alliance, a woman of the year award from the state’s 13th Assembly District, and the Rosa Parks Award for women in community service. She was a delegate to the fourth U.N. World Conference on Women, held in China in 1995.

Semel does not dwell on the plaques and certificates of honor. She prefers to get out and about, especially if it’s in an effort to make life better for someone.

In 1995, 50 years after Semel the cub reporter covered the signing of the U.N. charter, Swing got a call. The U.N. wanted to mark the anniversary with a grand interfaith ceremony at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral.

The bishop called his old friend, and a newly formed committee got to work. Its members met every few weeks for many months, and when the big day arrived, they were ready.

Rita Semel as a child in New York.

Gathered in the sanctuary were young people from 68 faith traditions, while the 7,466 pipes of the cathedral’s organ resounded through the sanctuary.

Swing remembers Semel telling him that day, “We can’t stop here.”

Soon after, the two of them, along with representatives from many faiths, began to craft the charter of the United Religions Initiative, which links more than 500 interfaith “cooperation circles” around the world.

“A lot of people tease my mom that she’s more involved with other religions,” noted Elisabeth Semel, “but it makes so much sense: It’s good for Jews, good for humanity, to promote the understanding and appreciation of others.”

As for hitting the big 9-0, Rita Semel says she doesn’t feel old, though she admits she’s sometimes surprised by the reflection she sees in the mirror.

It isn’t stopping her one bit from doing her life’s work.

“I have a theory that there is no such thing as retirement,” Semel said. “It’s important for people to keep going. It doesn’t matter what you do, but you got to do something. So I choose to spend my time doing this, and as long as people figure I can make a contribution, I’ll do it.”

cover photo   | cathleen maclearie

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.