Rita Semel at home in San Francisco, where she has devoted herself to public service for decades. (Photo/Norm Levin)
Rita Semel at home in San Francisco, where she has devoted herself to public service for decades. (Photo/Norm Levin)

Rita Semel, 98, is a tireless leader and ‘interfaith bridge’

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Part of Trailblazers, a series of profiles of Jewish men and women who build and sustain our Jewish community, supported by a generous donation from Carol and Norman Traeger.

Rita Semel is 98, an impressive milestone by any measure. But the lifelong community activist isn’t resting on her many laurels. “There are too many things that need fixing, or at least working on,” she says.

Sure, age has slowed her down a bit, and “unfortunately, they won’t let me drive,” she says, clearly annoyed.

The broadly admired interfaith leader still resides in her San Francisco home of 25 years across from Lafayette Park in Pacific Heights and, more importantly, keeps a busy calendar of civic engagements. She’s on the board of directors of Congregation Emanu-El and Grace Cathedral, serves on the city’s Human Services Commission and sits on the boards of the New Israel Fund regional council and the Clinic by the Bay.

Both determined and self-deprecating — “I guess I’m just a busybody,” she says of her public service activities — she remains goal-oriented. “I’d like to solve the homeless problem. It’s distressing that we just can’t seem to do that,” she says.

Sheltering the homeless is just one of her concerns. Another is racial justice, an issue that struck the New York City native and 1941 Barnard College graduate after she married Army officer Max Semel and the couple moved to the South. “That’s where I got my second college education,” she says wryly.

With stints in Alabama, north Florida and Mississippi, “I learned a great deal about this country that I never knew before,” she says.

The experience opened her eyes not only to the impact of segregation but also to another important issue: interfaith relations. Searching for a place where they could live near the base, she found a room for rent in the home of a Methodist minister in Centreville, Mississippi. “He showed me the room and of course I took it.” When he asked what religion she followed, “I thought, here’s the end.”

Instead, when he learned she was Jewish, “he said, ‘I’m so glad. I see enough Methodists on Sunday.’”

Semel often tells that story, because it influenced the course of her life. “That was the beginning of my interfaith education,” she says.

After she and Max moved to San Francisco, Semel went on to cofound and lead the S.F. Interfaith Council, cofound the United Religions Initiative, help form and head the San Francisco Council on Religion and Race, chair the Interfaith Center at the Presidio, serve on the board of the Graduate Theological Union, and play prominent roles in many other organizations, including leading the Jewish Community Relations Council.

Rita is tireless, focused, effective, indefatigable, humble.

Rabbi Doug Kahn, who succeeded Semel as JCRC executive director in 1989 and “followed her on at least two boards,” praises her as “tireless, focused, effective, indefatigable, humble.”

“Rita is someone who is not a talker but walks the walk, who is passionate about getting the job done. She has the extraordinary ability to keep her eyes on the prize.”

At JCRC, Semel made “a defining impact on the area of intergroup relations, particularly interfaith relations,” says Kahn, who retired in 2016.

Semel’s leadership in the Bay Area Jewish community evolved after she and Max, a labor negotiator, settled here after the war. Semel came ahead of her husband while he was overseas during the war. An aspiring reporter, she found a job as a “copy boy” at the San Francisco Chronicle, handling minor assignments, including fetching coffee for others. “One of my not-so-fond memories,” she recalls, was helping a photographer at a boxing match. “That was an awful experience. I hated it.”

On the positive side: “I found out what a mentor was. There was only one woman on the city side, Carolyn Ansbacher. She took me under her wing and I got to do things that other copy boys couldn’t.” A highlight was covering the signing of the United Nations charter in San Francisco in June 1945.

In 1946, she took a job with the Jewish Community Bulletin (J.’s predecessor) and worked as associate editor.

As the movement to establish Israel ramped up, “it was interesting,” Semel remembers, “because San Francisco Jewry was very much opposed to a Jewish state.” People worried about “dual loyalty,” yet when Israel “became a reality, all these leading families in San Francisco did an about-face and decided to do everything to make it successful. Which I would say is pretty classy.”

Semel stepped away from the Bulletin before the birth of her daughter Elisabeth (her second child, Jane, died tragically before her 18th birthday). ”I assumed I had to give up my job and stay at home,” she says. “And I found I really didn’t enjoy being home 24/7.” Semel took on freelance work for clients including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Jewish Community Federation, United Way, America-Israel Cultural Foundation (she’s still thrilled about meeting violinist Isaac Stern, who chaired the organization) and other nonprofits.

“There was never a time my mom didn’t work, which was very unusual in the ’50s,” says Elisabeth Semel, a criminal defense attorney and director of the Death Penalty Clinic at Berkeley Law. “In their circle of friends, my mother was literally the only one who worked.”

Both her parents were exceptional role models, she says. “It never occurred to me that you couldn’t be what you wanted to be.”

The Semels joined Congregation Emanu-El. “My husband grew up in a much more religious household,” Semel explains. “After the war was over and we had our first child, he felt we should join a synagogue.” Emanu-El Rabbi Alvin Fine “appealed to both of us.”

Semel’s parents, though not religious, exemplified the spirit of tikkun olam. “I grew up during the Depression. I remember that what little they had, they shared it.”

Her paternal grandfather, an immigrant, “was what in those days you would call a Talmudic scholar. He didn’t work and he kept learning and reading.” Her father was cut from another cloth. He ran away at 16 and joined a vaudeville troupe, but eventually quit (members Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor went on to “become famous and rich,” Semel notes).

“My father was a very interesting man. He was very creative and always looking for things to do and to make. He had lots of good ideas and no money to do it. All through his life he was always ahead of his time.”

In a way, Semel too was ahead of her time. Kahn calls her “a world trendsetter” in “building relationships between the Jewish community and other faiths.”

Semel has received numerous awards and honors, most recently in February from the S.F. Institute on Aging. Her living room is adorned with photos of herself with noteworthy public figures, such as President Barack Obama, House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Stacks of books with serious titles fill shelves and cover the coffee table.

She supports a number of organizations with her philanthropy, and her permanent endowment fund at the San Francisco Foundation specifically advances the work of the San Francisco Interfaith Council to which she has devoted much of her life.

“She’s seen very much as an interfaith bridge,” says daughter Elisabeth. “But at the end of the day, it comes from her view of what it is to be Jewish.”

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.