Doing what he was born to do: Doug Kahn reflects on his 30 years of advocacy with S.F.-based JCRC

Rabbi Doug Kahn seems so well suited for his position at the helm of the San Francisco–based Jewish Community Relations Council that he might have been born for it.

A fourth-generation San Franciscan and a former student activist, he was able to parlay his passion for Israel, human rights and Jewish values not just into a career as a Jewish communal professional, but into the top slot at the organization charged with expressing those very concerns in the name of the Bay Area Jewish community. Call it luck or good planning — either way, he’s in the right job, and after 30 years he hasn’t lost any of his early fire.

“I love the community in which I was born,” Kahn says. “I’m a champion of all things San Francisco. I love the Jewish community, I love the ways in which this community has grown, I love the range of issues we grapple with, I love the responsibility that comes with directing the JCRC and I love the people I work with. All of that makes me passionate about it.”

Rabbi Doug Kahn photo/courtesy of jcrc

Kahn, 61, is in this publication a lot. Longtime j. readers probably know about his decades of advocacy for Jews from the former Soviet Union, his support for Israel and for peace between Israel and its neighbors — and, more recently, his spirited fight to keep an anti-circumcision initiative off the San Francisco ballot and his championing of new funding guidelines for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

Less well known is why he does this work. As the JCRC prepares to honor Kahn for his three decades of community leadership — with a fundraiser on Sunday, Oct. 14 at the JCC of San Francisco — Kahn sat down with j. to reflect on his career.

The first thing you have to know about Kahn is how proud he is of his ties to the Bay Area — fourth generation and a U.C. Berkeley alum. His great-grandfather, Myer Sol Levy, immigrated here in 1870 and was the first rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in San Jose and at Oakland’s Temple Sinai, where his students included Gertrude Stein and Judah Magnes. Like his future great-grandson, Levy got involved in Jewish community relations, working to ensure that Jewish students weren’t penalized for missing school on Jewish holidays, and publicly taking on Mark Twain for an article criticizing American Jews for not serving in the military in proportion to their numbers.

The dinner table was another influence on Kahn’s career choice. “I grew up in a family where every single evening we talked about the issues of the day,” he recalls. “That stimulated my interest and broadened my ability to think about issues in multiple ways.”

Kahn was 16 in 1967. It was the height of the civil rights movement and the beginning of widespread opposition to the war in Vietnam, while on the Jewish scene, euphoria following Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War was coupled with the birth pangs of the Soviet Jewry movement.

“I was drawn to all of these movements; I didn’t want to choose,” he says. “When I look at my JCRC activity, basically what I’m doing is living out the dual commitments I grew up with — for a better world and for Jewish security.”

Kahn entered U.C. Berkeley in 1968, where he attended anti-war rallies and headed up campus activities on behalf of Soviet Jewry. Whenever a visiting Soviet dignitary was invited to campus, he and his peers organized protests.

In 1971, he and a friend took their first trip to Israel followed by four weeks in the Soviet Union, where they met with refuseniks. “A life-changing experience,” Kahn says.

“We met with people who had just gotten out of jail for their Zionist activities. These were people who were willing to risk their lives to live as Jews, and I had grown up in San Francisco, at [Congregation] Emanu-El, taking my Judaism for granted. If they, facing the kinds of risks they were facing, were willing to devote themselves to living freely as Jews, then I felt it was something I also wanted to do as a person who lived in freedom.”

In contrast to what he felt was insufficient American Jewish action during the Holocaust, he says, “I wanted to be able to look myself in the mirror someday and know I’d done all I could for Soviet Jewry. It ultimately influenced my decision to become a Jewish community professional.”

Kahn went to rabbinical school so he could return to Jewish activism “better prepared,” he says. But even in school he continued his activism, among other things organizing a press conference in Los Angeles when Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Rabbi Doug Kahn speaks about the plight of Soviet Jewry at a rally in the 1980s. photo/courtesy of jcrc

In May 1982, Kahn joined the JCRC as the assistant director, working under two people who would become his mentors: Earl Raab, the executive director, and Rita Semel, then the associate director.

“Fortunately for us and for him, there was an opening on the staff,” says Semel, who has known Kahn since he was born (she and her late husband were among Kahn’s parents’ closest friends). “It was as if it was meant to be.”

The San Francisco organization was already heavily involved in the Soviet Jewry movement, and would remain so for the rest of the decade, so Kahn stepped easily into the position. When Semel retired as the JCRC’s executive director 23 years ago, there was “no question” in her mind about who would replace her. “Doug had proven his worth,” she says.

Over the years, the JCRC has been involved in many different issues, from speaking out against apartheid in South Africa to standing up for Israel in the wake of two intifadas and the growth of the BDS movement (boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel).

Along with gaining freedom for Soviet Jews — a stunning victory to which Kahn believes the S.F.-based JCRC contributed — he points to several other high points of his 30-year career.

One was the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps, which was marked with a community-wide ceremony during which survivors of Nazi camps put commemorative medals around the necks of local veterans who had helped liberate those very same camps. The JCRC spent six months trying to identify liberators still alive in Northern California. “I thought we’d find a dozen, and we ended up identifying about 120,” Kahn says.

For many of the veterans, this was the first time they spoke to their families about what they’d seen in the camps. “If there’s one single event I can’t forget, it’s that,” Kahn says.

Another highlight of the job, he says, is the annual 10-day trip to Israel he leads for non-Jewish leaders from Northern California — elected officials, labor leaders, LGBT activists, leaders from different ethnic communities, almost all of whom have never been to Israel before. “I’ve done it multiple times and can’t possibly tire of the experience,” he says. “The impact of the trip is so profound.”

That impact has been demonstrated numerous times. For example, in 1994, a mural honoring Malcolm X was unveiled at San Francisco State University. At the last minute, the artist added anti-Israel symbols without the university’s approval. Kahn was able to work quickly with SFSU President Robert Corrigan to have the mural removed — it helped, he says, that he’d spent 10 days in Israel with Corrigan six months earlier, and had forged a good relationship with the man. “It’s about building trust,” Kahn says.

On Kahn’s watch, the S.F.-based JCRC, which was founded in the early 1940s along with 11 others around the United States, has become one of the most respected of the country’s 125 JCRCs. It serves San Francisco, Marin and Sonoma counties, the Peninsula and the East Bay — but beyond that, colleagues in other cities constantly approach Kahn and his staff to tap into their expertise.

In 2003, Kahn (center) and then–JCRC staffer Yitzhak Santis organize protesters outside of a hotel in San Francisco. photo/file-joyce goldschmid

Last year, faced with a potential ballot measure to outlaw circumcision in San Francisco, the JCRC built a strong coalition with local Muslims, and together they defeated the proposal even before it made it to the ballot.

The story made international news, and last month the Jewish community of Berlin approached the JCRC for help with a similar legal challenge to circumcision in Germany. Overnight, Kahn and his staff were able to identify medical experts who could refute fallacious data regarding circumcision, and got that information to Berlin the same day. “That was a tremendous feeling,” Kahn says.

Kahn’s tenure has not been without controversy. Two years ago, for example, he was instrumental in crafting new guidelines for federation funding that involved a pro-Israel “litmus test” for potential grantees. It was a big, bold step, as no other Jewish community had ever imposed such restrictions. In response, 73 local rabbis and artists signed a full-page ad in the Forward that criticized the guidelines as a “dangerous precedent” bordering on McCarthyism.

Kahn, however, defended the guidelines as an attempt to restore civility to the communal discourse on Israel, which had been badly shaken by the fracas surrounding the S.F. Jewish Film Festival’s 2009 screening of “Rachel,” a film about pro-Palestinian activist Rachel Corrie.

Along similar lines, in 2011 the JCRC promoted a “year of civil discourse,” hosting workshops and sending consultants to synagogues and other Jewish institutions where conversations about Israel had become overly volatile.

Referring to what he describes as the Jewish community’s increasing polarization on Israel, Kahn says he feels “very good” about the job he’s done “maintaining a broad tent for the community without having it collapse. It’s a constant balancing act.”

“He is a tremendous leader for the JCRC, but besides that, he’s a mensch,” says former KGO radio talk show host and longtime Jewish activist John Rothmann, who has known Kahn since they were boys. “He’s led one of the most important communal agencies through the most difficult times. He can do what he does because he knows how to build consensus.”

Like the rabble-rouser that still lurks in his soul, however, Kahn says that while he “believes passionately” in consensus, he doesn’t look to it as an end in itself, but as a tool for effective advocacy.

“Most of the time it’s not a question of whether or not there’s consensus, but of figuring out where that consensus lies on an issue and then developing the action plan that goes with it,” Kahn says.

Even when one disagrees with Kahn, “you know that once the crisis is over,” Rothmann notes, “he’ll be there for you and for the entire community.”

There is one conflict between the two that still rankles, however. “In 1962 we made a bet,” Rothmann recalls. “I bet that [Richard] Nixon would be governor, and Doug bet on [Pat] Brown. He won, and I’ve been paying it off ever since.”

Celebration honoring Rabbi Doug Kahn
on the occasion of his 30th anniversary at JCRC is 5-8:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 14 at the JCC of San Francisco, 3200 California St. Light dinner, video tribute, dessert. Tickets start at $125. or (415) 957-1551

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at [email protected].