Supporters of Joe Biden celebrate on San Francisco's Embarcadero. (Photo/Julie Trachtenberg)
Supporters of Joe Biden celebrate on San Francisco's Embarcadero. (Photo/Julie Trachtenberg)

‘This was relief’: Bay Area Jewish liberals exhale after trying election

On Election Day, Sara Dunsky was in court. The 40-year-old immigration lawyer, a member of the San Francisco congregation The Kitchen, was arguing on behalf of an asylum-seeker from Central America. She said the hearing was successful, and her client was allowed to remain in the country.

“I think about most things through the lens of immigration first,” she said.

Sara Dunsky
Sara Dunsky

Dunsky spoke to J. on Nov. 6, as the voting tally was turning sharply in favor of the former vice president but before the results were final. Noting the current administration’s stance on immigration, including slashing the refugee cap to historic lows, she said it would be “incredibly meaningful to be rid of Trump at the helm of our country.”

Dunsky got her wish the next day, four days after Election Day, when mainstream media outlets unanimously called the election for Joe Biden even though President Donald Trump had not yet conceded (and still hasn’t).

Across the Bay Area, many within the Jewish community — a community largely agonized by a presidency that many saw as chaotic and some saw as cruel — expressed relief that a turbulent period in U.S. political history appeared to be nearing the end.

According to exit polling from the Associated Press, Jews across the country supported Biden by 68 percent, the most of any religious group, while 30 percent of Jews supported Trump. Locally, among the general population, county results showed overwhelming support for the Biden-Harris ticket; 85 percent in San Francisco and 81 percent in Alameda County.

In conversations with local Jews, J. found that many shared a sense of anxiety in the weeks and months leading up to the election, which gradually turned into anticipation, then cautious optimism and, finally, joy. Or, at least, satisfaction.

Benay Dara-Abrams, 72, a Berkeley activist with the social justice organization Raging Grannies, has seen quite a few elections in her day. She’s been politically active since 1963.

But “this one was scarier,” she said. During the Watergate scandal in 1973, “people stood up to Nixon,” she added. But many people in this day and age “didn’t stand up to Trump.”

Unsurprisingly, Dara-Abrams was no mere armchair Biden supporter. She wrote some 3,000 letters to voters in swing states during the weeks leading up to the election, so watching the results come in felt very personal. For three days, she barely slept.

“I was very worried on election night,” she said. “I was at home with my husband trying not to check the results all the time.”

Dara-Abrams said part of her motivation is her children and grandchildren. After the election, she drove her 4½-year-old granddaughter past Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ elementary school, Thousand Oaks, in North Berkeley, because she wanted to show her that a little girl could grow up to achieve high office.

“I look at [the children] and I think that I didn’t want them to grow up in the country we had in the last few years,” she said. “It brings me to tears.”

It’s easy to guess how Yoni Landau felt when Biden clinched the presidency. As CEO of Resistance Labs, an Oakland nonprofit that helps elect progressive candidates via mass text messaging, Landau worked tirelessly to elect the man who served in the Senate for 36 years.

Yoni Landau at the New Media Ventures award ceremony, 2020. (Photo/Courtesy Landau)
Yoni Landau at the New Media Ventures award ceremony, 2020. (Photo/Courtesy Landau)

“By Friday it was like, ‘Call it already,’” he said. “By Saturday, we got the OK to celebrate. I went to Lake Merritt and it was quite a party.”

Resistance Labs registered voters, signed them up to vote by mail and, as Landau put it, “chased people who hadn’t returned their ballots.” His nonprofit sent 10 million texts to Pennsylvania voters. “We played our small part,” he said.

But while dancing erupted on the streets of the Mission District in San Francisco, at Lake Merritt in Oakland and elsewhere, among many Biden supporters J. spoke with, there was a reluctant sense that the road ahead remains challenging.

Labor historian Harvey Schwartz of El Cerrito said his feelings were “mixed.” While he welcomed the Biden victory, he said that Republican control of the Senate under Mitch McConnell and a conservative majority on the Supreme Court would put restraints on many policies the new administration may want to implement.

Harvey Schwartz
Harvey Schwartz

“I should be happy … Trump could have won, and it shouldn’t have been such a close race,” Schwartz said. The results made it clear that racism still plagues the country, he said. “A president can do a lot of damage” in four years, he added. “There’s a lot to repair.”

Others, however, didn’t hold back on popping open a bottle of champagne.

Or sparkling cider. That was the call at state Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan’s house in Orinda, where sparkling apple cider was poured for the family’s two school-age children. The toast came around 5 p.m. Saturday, as Biden delivered a parking-lot speech in Wilmington, Delaware.

Rebecca Bauer-Kahan
Rebecca Bauer-Kahan

Bauer-Kahan said her entire family, including her kids in first and fifth grades, were deeply invested in the election outcome. “It was very simple for them,” she said. “They viewed it as the nice guy won.”

In 2008, when Barack Obama won the presidency, she felt “happiness” at the historic nature of that election.

It was different this time, the 42-year-old said. “This was relief.”

The life of Bauer-Kahan and her family was fundamentally transformed by the Trump presidency, and that’s what motivated the former defense attorney and environmental lawyer to run for office in 2018.

“After Trump won, some of the things that I hold very dear to me, values of this country that used to be nonpartisan,” started to change, she said, referring largely to the Trump administration’s environmental and immigration policies. “As the granddaughter of people who came to this country to survive — Holocaust survivors — I couldn’t sit on the sidelines as we turned our back on those values.”

Bauer-Kahan, part of the 16-member California Legislative Jewish Caucus in Sacramento, was victorious herself last week, garnering 70 percent of the vote in her Assembly district (from Walnut Creek to Orinda to Livermore) en route to a second term.

RELATED: Who did U.S. Jews vote for in 2020? It’s complicated.

In 2008, Marcella White Campbell of San Francisco watched with joy as Barack Obama was elected the first African American president in U.S history. 

She was thinking about that moment on election day this year, as votes were being tallied and states were being called for either candidate.

“I was thinking back to 2008, when I was watching the election results with my little boy, who saw himself in Barack Obama,” she said.

As a Jew of color, she feels that the results, while positive, show that deep divisions still exist in America.

“It really felt very fractured,” she said. “Looking at it, it really does make me see how much work we have to do.”

Campbell said she wants her own Jewish community to remember to put the values of diversity and equality at the forefront, and to use the momentum of the election to make real progress on those issues. She’s worried about young people, like her own two children, who have come of age in a time of cynicism and division.

Marcella Campbell and family at her son's bar mitzvah in 2018. (Photo/Courtesy Campbell)
Marcella Campbell with husband Greg and daughter Maia at her son Noah’s bar mitzvah in 2018. (Photo/Courtesy Campbell)

“I see the challenge,” she said. “This week I’ve been taking a deep breath, [then] I’m getting back into the fray.”

While Democrats mostly celebrated the Biden victory, not every member of the Bay Area Jewish community was relieved.

A handful of Jewish Trump supporters in the Bay Area sent emails to J. expressing skepticism about the validity of the election, and some said they were disappointed in the Jewish community’s support for Biden, who they believe pales in comparison to Trump.

“He’ll bring back the economy-destroying policies of Obama and other Democrats, such as higher taxes and more regulations,” wrote Howard Epstein, 73, a retired small-business owner in San Francisco. Epstein wondered whether a Biden-Harris administration would go so far as to “defund the Defense Department.”

Bob Zeidman, a 60-year-old engineer, said he opposed Trump’s unsupported statements that the election had been “stolen” or was rigged. “I wish he would stop making statements without proof,” Zeidman said. Still, he wondered whether the election had been truly fair. “I honestly don’t know,” he said.

“I believe that Republicans generally prefer the rule of law while Democrats generally believe the ends justify the means,” Zeidman wrote in an email to J. “Many Democrats I know despise Trump, considering him to be a modern-day Hitler,” he acknowledged. “Wouldn’t you have stopped Hitler by any means possible if you had the chance?”

One week after Election Day, Trump still hadn’t conceded, claiming voting irregularities and widespread fraud. Though no proof has materialized, the administration has launched lawsuits in a half-dozen states where the vote was close, though the filings in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada have already been dismissed.

Israeli American Zvi Alon, a Palo Alto resident and Trump donor, said he was “extremely disappointed with the Jewish support for the president,” someone he believes has done more for Israel than any other U.S. president in history.

Zvi Alon (left), seen here with his wife Ricki Alon, was "extremely disappointed" by Jews who voted for Biden. (Photo/Courtesy Zvi Alon)
Zvi Alon (left), seen here with his wife Ricki Alon, was “extremely disappointed” by Jews who voted for Biden. (Photo/Courtesy Zvi Alon)

“I am further disappointed with the blind support of a majority of Jews for the Democratic Party,” he said, “driving the Israel priority down their decision tree.”

But two Bay Area youth activists who are involved in Israel issues on campus said they were encouraged that a Biden victory might help lower the temperature when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and antisemitism.

A “return to normalcy” is what San Francisco State University student Zachary Weinstein said he’s looking forward to with a Biden administration.

Zachary Weinstein
Zachary Weinstein

A 20-year-old Hillel regular and the president of Israel Team, a student-led group at SFSU devoted to Israel-related education and awareness, Weinstein said he has witnessed with mounting concern the Trump administration’s willingness to “empower” and inflame antisemitic groups and individuals.

“I think we’re all pretty relieved,” Weinstein said of the Biden win. “We have a [new] president who is going to quickly and openly denounce those types of ideologies.”

On the topic of Israel, Weinstein said he’s looking forward to a White House that will hold Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government more accountable.

“They named a town after him,” Weinstein said with a laugh, referring to Trump Heights, a planned Israeli settlement in the Golan Heights. “They really were sucking up to him. Trump let Netanyahu do whatever he wants. I think Biden has a much more reasonable policy.”

Another Hillel participant and SFSU student, Connor MacLennan, said that he’s looking forward to conversations about Israel on campus that won’t be framed and constrained by the Trump administration’s policies.

SFSU is known as a hotbed of both Israeli and Palestinian activism, and the student government currently is considering a resolution calling on the university to join the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.

“On campus right now, sometimes the Jewish voice is associated with right-leaning voices because of Trump’s [policy on Israel],” MacLennan said. He’s relieved that his identity as a pro-Israel Democrat will carry more weight and legitimacy under a Biden presidency.

MacLennan did say he’s concerned about the status of the peace efforts between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan, something he said was a positive development under Trump. He hopes those agreements will continue to stand under Biden.

Tomer Persico
Tomer Persico

Tomer Persico, an Israeli professor of Jewish mysticism in the Bay Area as a visiting scholar, said he found the election fascinating, viewing it as an outsider.

Though he was surprised by the number of Americans who voted for Trump, the win for Biden enabled him to see the strength in American democracy. Though Trump continues to deny the election results, he won’t be able to do so forever.

“He can’t do what he wants,” Persico said. “He will flail and yell and wave his arms about it, but, ultimately, he will leave.”

Gabriel Greschler, Maya Mirsky, Dan Pine, Laura Paull, Gabe Stutman and David A.M. Wilensky contributed to this report.