Matt Haney (right) with his grandparents in Oct. 2021 at his campaign kickoff event.
Matt Haney (right) with his grandparents in Oct. 2021 at his campaign kickoff event.

Matt Haney’s Jewish roots: public service, social justice and doing his grandpa proud

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Upon taking the oath of office at his swearing-in ceremony for the state Assembly on May 4, San Francisco’s Matt Haney also became the 19th member of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus.

On Thursday, he will be part of a caucus meeting with Gov. Gavin Newsom, marking Haney’s first audience with the governor — San Francisco’s former mayor — since joining the Assembly. Among the topics on the table is how much funding Newsom’s proposed budget will be allocating for Holocaust education in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

“That’s something that’s been important to me,” Haney, 40, told J. over Zoom from his Sacramento office, noting that his first job after graduating from UC Berkeley was working as a docent at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. He also worked on Holocaust education programming when serving on the San Francisco Board of Education from 2012 to 2019, part of it as president.

You won’t find any mention of Haney’s Jewish roots on his Wikipedia page, and aside from publicly lighting the Hanukkah menorah in Union Square in 2020 alongside Chabad Rabbi Yosef Langer, Haney’s Jewish identity has flown under the radar throughout his career in politics.

But you will find his 94-year-old Jewish grandfather, Allen Calvin, prominent on Haney’s Instagram.

“Grateful for their love and support, and the inspiration they’ve give[n] me to serve others” Haney captioned a May 13 post that included a picture of Grandpa Allen and Grandma Dorothy, also 94, along with his cousins, who were at the Golden State Warriors’ winning playoff game against the Memphis Grizzlies.

“A lot of my Jewish identity was also formed through my relationship with my grandfather,” Haney told J.

A young Matt Haney with his Grandpa Allen
A young Matt Haney with his Grandpa Allen

Grandpa Allen grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, the son of Jewish immigrant parents from Eastern Europe. His family faced antisemitism as one of only a few Jewish families in their neighborhood. Allen joined the Navy at 17, fought in World War II and later developed a close relationship with Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, devoting his life to education and civil rights.

Haney said his grandfather instilled a strong commitment to Jewish values that connect to the “experience of persecution and discrimination,” which in turn brought him to develop his own “understanding of responsibility around it.”

That history, Haney said, shaped “our whole family’s understanding of our Jewish identity and…a broader commitment of service and our responsibility to others.”

Family Hanukkah and Passover celebrations took place at his grandparents’ home in Golden Gate Heights, where they still live. They’re also longtime members of Congregation Emanu-El.

Haney’s parents divorced when he was 4. He and his sister, Erin Haney, 41, were brought up in the East Bay by their mother, whose work focused on children’s health advocacy and policy. Now retired, she’s an author of murder-mystery novels set in Sacramento. A third sibling, Nathan Calvin, 25, was born when Matt was 15.

Raised in a secular home, Haney didn’t grow up attending synagogue or have a bar mitzvah, though the family traveled to Israel multiple times to see cousins who live there. After college, he went back to Israel on a Taglit Birthright trip.

He developed a stronger connection to Judaism as he got older. While leading tours at the Museum of Tolerance for a short time after graduating from Cal, Haney said he “started to connect more to my Jewish identity and the responsibility as a Jew of really protecting minority rights and human rights.”

He took that to heart and put it into action. Haney spent his early 20s in Bosnia working in the Special Department for War Crimes in the Prosecutor’s Office of Bosnia and Herzegovina. He then went to the National University of Ireland where he got a master’s degree in human rights. He also picked up a couple of degrees at Stanford, a master’s in education and his law degree.

Haney handily won the April 19 special election to replace David Chiu (who resigned after being named San Francisco city attorney) after serving since 2019 on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He represented District 6, which includes the Tenderloin, the neighborhood where he’s lived for eight years.

Haney is fiercely devoted to the immigrant-rich Tenderloin community, which mirrors his connection to Judaism and its history of persecution.

“The Tenderloin is a place where we really challenge ourselves to live our values of compassion and healing,” Haney said. “The people who were hurt or harmed are a reflection of trauma that happened elsewhere, overwhelmingly, and they’re in the Tenderloin because they’re trying to get some help there. So there’s actually a lot that’s really powerful and beautiful about a neighborhood that is really a beacon of compassion.”

Haney lives in a rent-controlled apartment (which he considers a luxury) with his two orange tabby cats. He is one of only three elected officials in the 120-member state Legislature who are publicly known to be renters rather than homeowners.

“[That’s] pretty incredible, considering about half of the state are renters, but only less than 2 percent of the state Legislature,” Haney said. Many renters live with few protections, he said, and as a result are in a constant state of instability and uncertainty.

“The rent can go up and they can be forced to move from their home,” Haney said. He understands the anxiety that comes with displacement — he moved with his family to 15 different East Bay locations before he turned 18, due to rent increases or because the place they were renting was being sold. “I think it’s important for policymakers to understand.”

Haney said the issues in the Tenderloin that he worked on as San Francisco supervisor — homelessness, drug addiction, access to health care — are what motivated him to run for state office.

“I don’t think that the problems that we see in the Tenderloin can be solved in the Tenderloin,” Haney said. While the problems of inequity are highly concentrated in his neighborhood, he said, they’re also ubiquitous across the Bay Area.

As he grows into his new role in the state Assembly, Haney said he is honored to serve on the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, which advocates on behalf of the professional, educational, social, political and cultural concerns of the Jewish Community. He and the caucus chair, Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel (San Fernando Valley), graduated in the same class at UC Berkeley.

Haney brings an “extraordinary record of standing up for vulnerable communities,” Gabriel said in a phone interview with J., which he said is in keeping with the value of tikkun olam (repairing the world) that is also part of the caucus’ mission. 

“We think he’s going to be a huge asset, and be a major player in the Legislature on uplifting the most vulnerable folks in California, irrespective of their background,” Gabriel added.

Haney said being new to Sacramento, he’s found a supportive community through the caucus.

“It’s just amazing to see the work that the Jewish legislators are doing on such a wide variety of issues that I know have been driven in part by their Jewish values,” Haney said.

Now he’s one of them.

Jew,  Jewish,  J. The Jewish News of Northern California
Emma Goss.(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.