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)

At 100 years old, local Jewish legend Rita Semel gets a young adult biography

J.’s coverage of books is supported by a generous grant from The Milton and Sophie Meyer Fund.

Jennifer Kaufman and Rita Semel don’t exactly go way back. They didn’t meet face to face until the grand celebration of Semel’s 100th birthday at Congregation Emanu-El last fall. But months before that, the two connected on Zoom when Kaufman began work on a young adult biography of Semel.

In “Rita Semel: Stories of Radiance and Repair,” Kaufman recounts tales from the Bay Area Jewish icon’s long life, embellishing them with fantasy flourishes that make the book read like a novel. It’s a technique Kaufman hopes will engage young readers with Semel’s years of service to the Jewish community and beyond.

Jennifer Kaufman
Jennifer Kaufman

“She’s someone who has had a vision for a long time,” said Kaufman, 53, a visual artist who is a first-time author. “Because she was so inspiring, I felt it was important to motivate kids to engage with the world they live in, to speak up for justice.”

The book is available at no cost at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.

Semel is best known for her interfaith work, both as an early leader of the United Religions Initiative and as the co-founder and longtime Jewish leader of the San Francisco Interfaith Council. She remains active in interfaith work to this day. But she’s worn many other hats, including serving as a journalist with the San Francisco Chronicle — for which she covered the signing of the Charter of the United Nations in 1945 — and for this newspaper. She also served as executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council from 1987 to 1989.

Kaufman’s biography recounts how the New York-born Semel moved with her family to San Francisco in 1939. She attended Barnard College and later got a close-up view of Jim Crow segregation while living in the Deep South with her husband, Max, who served in the Army during World War II. That experience changed her and set her on her professional path. The book also details how she persevered through the deaths of her teenage daughter, Jane, and her husband.

Kaufman added poems and imagined dialogue to enhance the narrative. She also spent time at the J. office in San Francisco, poring over bound volumes of this newspaper (they go back to the first issue printed in 1895) in search of stories about Semel.

“She is not very interested in talking about herself,” Kaufman said of Semel, who sat for multiple Zoom interviews over the two years it took to write the book. “One thing you learn in art school is to show, not tell, and that’s why I easily moved into a fictional context and became more interested in the values Rita holds. I was trying to make it relatable.”

Rita Semel speaking at her 100th birthday celebration at San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El, Nov. 23, 2021. (Photo/Dan Pine)
Rita Semel speaking at her 100th birthday celebration at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El, Nov. 23, 2021. (Photo/Dan Pine)

Though the book was written for young readers of any faith, Kaufman did not shy away from including explicitly Jewish content. She spells out the meaning and importance of tikkun olam (repairing the world) in explaining Semel’s dedication to community service. She also cites a version of the famous maxim of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, as told to Rita by her grandmother Sarah: “Dear One, know that a person must cross a very, very narrow bridge. And the most important thing to remember is not to make yourself afraid at all.”

Kaufman grew up in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in a family who attended Congregation Sherith Israel. A visual artist with an emphasis on drawing, she also has made a living working as a grief counselor at Sinai Memorial Chapel.

She sees a correlation between art and her understanding of Judaism.

“My primary [artistic] interest is exploring line,” she said, “a basic form that shows its past, present and future simultaneously. That’s how I understand Jewish practice, in the sense that there is continuity when we talk about generation to generation, or the body from one breath to the next. There’s a pulsing that really interests me.”

Kaufman said she hopes her book will find its way to students at Jewish day schools and perhaps be distributed via the interfaith organizations Semel has served for decades. As much as she hopes young readers will be inspired by Rita Semel, Kaufman has already beat them to it.

“She saw ways to try to repair the world, and always [did so] in concert with other people,” Kaufman said. “It always came up in my interviews with her: You can’t go it alone.”

“Rita Semel: Stories of Radiance and Repair” by Jennifer Kaufman. To order, contact Mark Musial at (415) 751-2535 or [email protected].

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.