Passionate Jewish community leader Mervyn Danker to retire

To add a touch of wisdom to explain his retirement announcement, Mervyn Danker could have drawn on the words of, say, Jefferson or Lincoln.

Instead, the American Jewish Committee’s Northern California regional director went with Bueller. Ferris Bueller.

“Life moves pretty fast,” wrote Danker, quoting a line from the title character of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” the classic ’80s screen comedy. “If you do not stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

After Jan. 31, Danker intends to start looking around. After six years at the helm of AJC, and 11 years before that as principal of Foster City’s Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School, he will retire. However, he intends to return to the classroom after taking some time off.

Mervyn Danker

An AJC search committee is interviewing applicants to replace Danker, 70. He is the second top Bay Area Jewish community leader to announce his retirement in recent weeks, following the announcement by Jewish Community Relations Council executive director Doug Kahn, who will retire in June 2016.

“I’m not getting any younger,” Danker explained. “I want to travel, and then do what I enjoy most: teaching history, and geopolitics. The other thing I want to do is advocate for the State of Israel. That has been the highlight of my tenure at AJC.”

Indeed, his AJC job required that Danker routinely meet with S.F.-based consuls general representing nations from around the world. More often than not, Danker was plying his own diplomatic skills to promote a pro-Israel message.

The South African native said he found it rewarding to “speak to diplomats about issues of great concern to the Jewish community, most revolving around the State of Israel and threats to it. It was a special opportunity to get to know them and, in some instances, become friendly.”

He cites as an example his friendship with Elin Suleymanov, the former consul general of Azerbaijan, a mostly Muslim nation that maintains strong strategic and economic ties with Israel.

“Some [diplomats], though not all, would say they feel strongly about Israel,” Danker recalled of his conversations with foreign diplomats. “They admire Israel, but for various reasons, their countries cannot always vote for Israel in international forums.”

Danker will be missed by his AJC colleagues.

Board president Nancy Price praised him, saying he “translated his passion for the Jewish people and for Israel into his role. You can see it in the way he interacts with the diplomatic corps. I’m in awe of how he frames the issues, and how he diplomatically conveys the points that are so important.”

His decades as an educator in Jewish day schools prepared Danker for the diplomatic challenges of serving AJC.

Born and reared in Cape Town, South Africa, Danker grew up the son of Jewish immigrants from Latvia. He attended Jewish day schools and later taught high school in Cape Town before moving to Perth, Australia, in 1986 to become head of a Jewish day school.

Danker served there three years before relocating to the United States, first Hartford, Connecticut, then the Bay Area. He raised his children here and is now a U.S. citizen.

“The most gratifying part [of teaching] was that the school year revolved around the Jewish calendar,” Danker recalled. “To cultivate lifelong passion for all things Jewish, understanding the centrality of Israel in the life of the Jewish people, was the highlight.”

Danker took over the AJC post from Ernest Weiner, who had served for 37 years, and who died earlier this year.

“In his bones he’s a teacher,” said former national AJC president and Tiburon resident Richard Sideman, discussing Danker. “People have instantly trusted and respected him. He is able to speak to diplomats, the business community and the non-Jewish community as equals. It required a nimble voice and nimble mind to address these issues. Mervyn was a great interlocutor with them.”

Though AJC’s mission is to advocate for Jews anywhere in the world, Israel often tops the agenda. Despite the agency’s efforts, recent years have been volatile in the Middle East, especially in the wake of this past summer’s war in Gaza and the ensuing spasm of anti-Jewish violence.

So was Danker’s work in vain? “We like to think we’ve had an impact,” he said, “and [the diplomatic corps] has better understood the situation.”

Whatever the next chapter brings, Danker believes it will blend his twin skills as educator and advocate for, as he puts it, “all things Jewish.”

“We’ve got to do what we can,” he said, “to enthuse, inspire and educate those interested in supporting Jewish institutions, supporting the State of Israel and the community.”

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.