After 34 years, JCRC head Rabbi Doug Kahn steps down

Want to rile the normally unflappable Rabbi Doug Kahn? There is a way.

“When I hear the words ‘There’s no consensus on this issue,’ it grates on my nerves,” says the executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council.

At the end of this month, Kahn will step down and end his 34-year run with JCRC — including 27 as executive director — after which JCRC associate director Abby Porth will take the helm. She will become just the fourth full-time executive director in the 66-year history of the agency devoted to improving relations between Jews and the broader community.

on the cover: Rabbi Doug Kahn over the years

Kahn won’t be able to slip away without some love thrown his way first. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs — the umbrella body for JCRCs around the country — honored him last month at a national gathering in Cleveland. A resolution lauding Kahn called attention to his “even-keel demeanor” and his “ability to exhaust all creative options to find a diplomatic solution to even the most challenging community relations matters.”

Next, the Bay Area Jewish community will honor Kahn at a June 14 retirement party at Herbst Theater in San Francisco. A 5:45 p.m. program featuring Kahn onstage in conversation with KQED talk show host Michael Krasny will be followed at 6:45 p.m. with a wine and hors d’oeuvres reception.

Attendees also will have the opportunity to contribute to the Doug Kahn Israel Outreach Travel Fund, which will help ensure the continuation of a program Kahn holds dear to his heart — an annual trip that over the years has taken hundreds of influential Bay Area opinion and community leaders to Israel for intensive 10-day study tours.

Kahn, 65, may be leaving JCRC but he is not retiring. He plans to put his problem-solving skills to use in a JCRC-affiliated national consulting service that will offer crisis management, advocacy and what he calls “the lost art” of consensus building.

Though Kahn says he hasn’t had even five seconds to slow down since announcing his retirement 19 months ago, his impending departure has given others the opportunity to stop and reflect on the man’s career.

“Doug cares on a moral level for expressed goodness in the world,” said the Rev. Charles Gibbs, former rector at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in San Francisco and founding executive director of the United Religions Initiative. “He is one of those rare people who can be both a strong partisan for his community, and be open, interested, inquisitive and ultimately a passionate supporter of other communities as well.”

In his time at JCRC, Kahn did much to cement positive relations between Bay Area Jews and other religious and ethnic groups, as well as lead the fight on issues of concern to the Jewish community.

Rabbi Doug Kahn photos/courtesy jcrc

Whether demanding freedom for Soviet Jews — a cause he championed as early as the late 1960s — or fighting Israel boycotts on college campuses today, Kahn has employed what he calls “strategic activism” to build alliances. His organization has stood with LGBT and religious communities when they asked for help, and they returned the favor when the Jewish community needed allies.

Kahn, for example, recalls standing on the pulpit at the mostly African American Third Baptist Church in San Francisco’s Western Addition neighborhood soon after the Rodney King verdict in 1992, affirming a strong black-Jewish alliance at a difficult time. He also remembers JCRC reaching out to members of the local Bosnian Muslim community in the wake of brutal human rights violations perpetrated against Bosnians during the 1992-95 civil war.

More recently, JCRC has expressed solidarity with the Muslim American community dealing with increased levels of Islamophobia.

“In all the worlds I walk, when I hear of the gold standard of community relations, Doug Kahn’s name is always cited as the leading voice,” said Danny Grossman, who just completed his first year as CEO of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. “Doug’s ability to make the most prickly, awkward, challenging conversations go smoothly is part of the secret of his skill.”

Kahn’s tenure has had many highlights, but he was able to single out a few, such as the formation of the Institute of Curriculum Studies, which monitors school textbooks for inaccurate or bigoted information about Jews, Judaism and Israel. The national institute was founded by the S.F.-based JCRC in 2005.

His era also included the launching of the San Francisco Multicultural Passover Freedom Seder, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in April. Not only does the event draw some major movers and shakers in town, but it also builds bridges with other ethnic and religious communities, Kahn says.

Then there was the night in 1995 when former concentration camp inmates now living in the Bay Area draped medals around the necks of their liberators — “an extraordinary moment,” Kahn recalls. Organized by JCRC, the event at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco coincided with the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps and the end of the Holocaust.

Doug Kahn (on left) with Arthur Slepian and Anita Friedman at A Wider Brunch in 2015

Kahn also recalls the day in February 1987, across the street from the Soviet consulate in San Francisco, site of so many protests on behalf of Soviet Jews, when he stood with a cheering throng to greet refusenik Natan Sharansky, who had been freed from a Soviet prison the year before.

“We created a serpentine walkway that recreated the walk across the bridge when he was released,” he recalls. “That moment, when you see standing there before the Soviet consulate the free man who had become such a symbol of the struggle of Soviet Jews, was enormously gratifying.”

Kahn also says he will never forget Lucy, his official Russian tour guide on a 1989 JCRC-Bay Area Council for Soviet Jewry interfaith trip to the Soviet Union, the aim of which was to meet with refuseniks and other human rights activists.

On the first day of the trip, Lucy asked Kahn if he wanted to visit some Moscow tourist sites (he declined). On the second day, she whispered to him that she was Jewish. On the third day, she asked if she could bring her daughter on the bus “so she could sit with rabbis and be brought into learning a little about Judaism.” And on the trip’s final day in Moscow, Lucy asked the bus driver to pull over on a side street. “For about half an hour she talked about how the trip had changed her life,” Kahn recalls. Lucy later emigrated to Israel.

Kahn’s Soviet Jewry activism didn’t start with JCRC. He plunged head first into the movement as a teenager.

“When I started [working for Soviet Jewry] in 1968, they said it couldn’t be done,” Kahn notes. “The Soviet Union would never open its doors. My engagement in the movement convinced me that we should be reticent to ever say ‘never’ about anything.”

A fourth-generation San Franciscan, Doug Kahn grew up in a home in which current events dominated the nightly dinner table conversation. The family belonged to Congregation Emanu-El, which further instilled in Kahn a desire to fight for social justice.

He was the right teen at the right time, turning 17 in 1967.

Doug Kahn as a boy

“I found myself drawn to two issues of enormous import: the civil rights movement, and the protests against the Vietnam War,” he says. “I was equally drawn to the sense of newfound passion for Israel that grew out of the Six-Day War, when American Jews connected with Israel in ways that hadn’t previously been the case.”

With the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jewry among the first organizations of its kind, Kahn was an eager foot soldier. In 1971, while a student at U.C. Berkeley, he traveled to the Soviet Union, a risky venture for activists at the time.

He also realized that if he were to fight the good fight from a Jewish perspective, he needed to learn more about his tradition.

“I had always been able to cite my passion for social justice by reciting a few verses of the Prophets, but I didn’t have a strong Judaic background,” he says. “I knew my passion for tikkun olam [repairing the world] was really motivated by an understanding of Jewish social ethics, but I was self-conscious about not being well-grounded in Jewish sources.”

Though he never envisioned himself leading a congregation, he decided rabbinical school was the answer. During his year of study abroad in Israel, he met a high school senior from Portland, Oregon. Ellen and Doug hit it off and eventually married. After his 1979 ordination from the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, Kahn spent three years as executive director of George Washington University Hillel, but he longed to return to San Francisco.

In the summer of 1981, Kahn was serving as a cruise ship rabbi, sailing from New York to San Francisco, and when he reached his home port, he met with JCRC executive director Earl Raab, who offered the young rabbi a job.

“I felt at the time committed to not leaving Hillel in the lurch, but I said to Earl this was a dream job,” Kahn recalls. “I asked him if it were possible to come back a year later. He said he would try to keep the seat warm.”

A year later, Kahn became the newly minted JCRC assistant director.

Rita Semel had been close with Kahn’s parents and had known Kahn since he was born. Semel also happened to be the associate director of JCRC, working under Raab.

 Doug Kahn and his wife, Ellen, at their wedding in 1975

“There was no question about his understanding of the issues,” Semel, 95, recalls. “He seemed like a perfect match for JCRC to me, but also he knew that there are many ways to skin a cat. You had to involve the community, make sure people understood the issues and do what was necessary to make things better.”

As the Soviet Jewry exodus had barely begun by 1982, Kahn was the natural choice to take on that portfolio. He ran with it, and sometimes he shouted, too.

“I was deeply involved in organizing many protests where we would be raising our voice in front of the Soviet consulate, yelling ‘Let my people go,’” Kahn remembers. “One thing I learned from Earl and Rita, strategic activism always means having the full toolkit available …  from phone calls behind the scenes to mobilizing the entire community and everything in between.”

Kahn was promoted to associate director in 1987 when Semel replaced Raab, and in 1989 was named executive director when Semel retired.

Firebrand though he might have been as a young activist, Kahn quickly developed a diplomatic temperament that became one of his hallmarks. He says that in his 34 years at JCRC he never once lost his temper.

The Rev. Doug Huneke, former minister at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Tiburon, can attest to that. He first met Kahn in 1983 at a briefing before Huneke’s first trip to the Soviet Union, and from day one was impressed with Kahn’s cool demeanor.

The two became friends. Huneke found Kahn a helpful ally, especially when the Presbyterian Church (USA) began flirting with anti-Israel positions, including divestment measures.

“The most damning experience for me was when the San Francisco Theological Seminary chaplain took a group of students and seminary supporters to Israel then crossed into Lebanon with a Hezbollah commander,” Huneke remembers of a 2008 trip. “I challenged the seminary and got a lot of blowback. So I turned to Doug as I always do in these situations, to help me find my way through it.”

Kahn met with the head of the seminary and explained how damaging it was for denominational leaders to meet with avowed terrorists. According to Huneke, the meeting helped calm the waters. Working in concert with Hezbollah never took place again.

Closer to home, Huneke solicited Kahn’s help in 2009 when the Presbytery of the Redwoods, which has jurisdiction from the North Bay to the Oregon border, considered passing an Israel divestment measure.

“I worked behind the scenes with Doug,” Huneke recalls. “The Presbytery voted down the BDS [boycotts, divestment and sanctions] overture after 2½ hours of presentations by me and people on the other side. I couldn’t have done it without him. It was a beautiful marriage of partners in bringing this together.”

That was just one of many battles defending Israel that Kahn has fought. With the Bay Area a hotbed of anti-Israel BDS activity, JCRC has been one of the lead organizations pushing back.

BDS may be a fairly recent phenomenon, but anti-Israel foment on campus is not new. One of Kahn’s first campus battles took place in 1994 when a student-painted mural honoring Malcolm X went up at San Francisco State University.

The mural included unambiguously anti-Semitic symbols, including Jewish stars embedded with dollar signs and dripping blood.

After being tipped off by the Hillel chapter at SFSU, Kahn raised objections with then-university president Robert Corrigan and brought community leaders to the campus to demonstrate solidarity with Jewish students.

Assembly member David Chiu (center) with Abby Porth and Doug Kahn in Israel in April 2013

“I reached out to Rev. Amos Brown, a leader in the African American community and pastor of Third Baptist Church [of San Francisco],” Kahn recalls. “That was a moment when the Jewish students felt so supported, hearing from this African American leader a sense of outrage over these symbols.”

In the ensuing weeks, Kahn delivered to the SFSU president a detailed legal argument on why the symbols should be removed. Corrigan decided that the artist had violated his contract, and that the only option was to sandblast the mural. He then mandated that any subsequent murals would require final approval from the university president.

Years later, in 2007, another mural went up at SFSU, this one honoring the late professor and outspoken Palestinian rights activist Edward Said. It, too, included symbols deemed offensive, including a key representing the so-called Palestinian right of return, which would allow millions of descendants of Arabs who fled during the 1948 War of Independence to return to Israel.

Once again, after the JCRC and others objected, the SFSU president made the decision he would not accept the mural unless the symbols were removed.

Kahn wasn’t always playing defense. The annual JCRC trips to Israel for political, ethnic, religious, university, LGBT and other Northern California community leaders were expanded in the Kahn era after being launched under Semel’s directorship. Kahn says the trips reveal to participants an Israel beyond the headlines and allow them to experience the country through their own eyes.

Alumni of the trips include California Attorney General Kamala Harris, members of Congress Mike Honda and Anna Eshoo, former State Senator Darrell Steinberg, and San Francisco officials Dennis Herrera (city attorney), Jose Cisneros (treasurer), and David Chiu and London Breed (supervisors).

“These are some of the busiest people in the world saying I’m going to give the JCRC 10 days of my life to show me a picture of the real Israel,” Kahn says. “These are intensive trips [that give us] unparalleled time to build relationships.”

While Kahn boasted in the interview for this article that he has never had a dull day at the office, some days have certainly presented challenges requiring action.

For example, there was a string of violent anti-Semitic attacks in 1999 — synagogue arson fires in Sacramento and a shooting at a JCC in Los Angeles. After those incidents, JCRC, with support from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, felt compelled to spearhead a sweeping security upgrade for Bay Area Jewish community institutions.

Another difficult stretch occurred after the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival showed “Rachel” (a documentary about a pro-Palestinian activist’s death) and invited Rachel’s mother to speak after the screening. Many in the Bay Area’s pro-Israel community were outraged and, as a result, Kahn oversaw the creation of guidelines for Jewish institutions that receive funding from the S.F.-based federation. The guidelines, controversial in and of themselves, set boundaries on what would be considered appropriate criticism of Israel.

Over the past few years, much of Kahn’s (and JCRC’s) efforts have been focused on anti-Israel activity on campus, in mainstream churches and elsewhere. The agency counts 132 pro-BDS organizations in the Bay Area, twice as many since 2010, Kahn said.

“I wake up some mornings saying we really have accomplished a lot,” he reflects. “Other mornings I wake up and see how much is left to be done. It’s a reminder how exceptionally important the community relations role is in the community, and how necessary vigilance is.”

Porth, 40, will soon take up the watch. Kahn is confident the 17-year JCRC veteran will do a stellar job.

She’s certainly had a lot of on-the-job training. Several years ago, she led the JCRC fight against a proposed San Francisco city ordinance banning ritual circumcision — a battle that saw the Jewish organization partner with Muslim groups in opposing the ban.

And in 2011, she ran point on the Year of Civil Discourse, a JCRC-led program for Jewish institutions struggling with internal dissension, often over support for and criticism of Israel.

“It was clear from the beginning we had here an exceptional mind, a remarkable activist and an absolute commitment to the kind of work JCRC does,” Kahn says of Porth. “She has time and time again proven her leadership skills. I can’t imagine anyone more ready to assume this role.”

Porth calls Kahn “a magnanimous mentor,” saying he taught her “the power of exhibiting an even temperament, the power of never exhausting creative solutions to a problem, and how to develop consensus among people with disparate viewpoints.”

With the clock ticking, Kahn says he is looking forward and backward at the same time, excited about his new consulting venture but happy he devoted his working life to a cause he deeply believed in.

“I’d like to think that I won’t lose sleep after I retire,” he says of a job that often had him tossing and turning. “But the truth is, I worry about growing intolerance, including toward the pro-Israel community, I worry about sustaining the depth of our community’s connection to Israel going forward, I worry about the extent to which incivility in the broader society inevitably seeps into our own community. What let’s me sleep at night is knowing that Abby will take JCRC to new heights in partnership with our lay and professional leaders and colleagues, and the confidence that our community will, as it always has, meet the challenges ahead.”

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.