Walking through Jerusalem's Old City shuk in May are (from left) Mila Lazarevsky, San Francisco Mayor London Breed, Noelle Bonner and Meron Foster. (Photo/Dan Garon)
Walking through Jerusalem's Old City shuk in May are (from left) Mila Lazarevsky, San Francisco Mayor London Breed, Noelle Bonner and Meron Foster. (Photo/Dan Garon)

What I learned about San Francisco from visiting Israel with Mayor Breed

I had the privilege of accompanying San Francisco Mayor London Breed as she traveled to Israel in May on a mission trip organized by the San Francisco-Haifa Sister City Committee and the Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area.

A delegation of about 30 visited Haifa, Tel Aviv, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. This wasn’t my first visit. I initially went to Israel more than 40 years ago as a tourist visiting the Holy Land and now travel there frequently for work representing dynamic Israeli companies that embody the startup nation spirit.

However, exploring Israel from the standpoint of a San Franciscan at this moment, specifically, was quite impactful. Our city is at a crossroads as we struggle to reinvigorate our downtown and battle the twin crises of homelessness and drug addiction. I brought back many ideas and lessons from Israel that can help our city as we chart our post-pandemic future. Here are just a few of them.

Value of people-to-people connections

Showing up matters. Just the fact that the mayor made and continued her trip despite an uptick in regional violence sent a powerful message around the importance of “being there.” Meeting people and actually spending time with them face to face is a game changer. On the trip, our delegation of Jews and non-Jews meaningfully discussed an array of topics with a diverse set of Israelis and Palestinians. Plus, we were able to have these dialogues in the local environment, where we could see, hear and absorb so much more context and detail.

For San Francisco to achieve a full recovery, we need to fully embrace in-person connections. This includes encouraging visits to the Bay Area from delegations, conventions, business travelers and tourists. There is still only one amazing, unique San Francisco in the whole world.

Diversity makes us stronger

During the trip, we saw firsthand the complex tapestry that is modern Israel. We heard from the Tel Aviv Deputy Mayor Chen Arieli about the importance of the LGBTQ community in her city and in the country. Our group visited Battae, the Ethiopian Israeli heritage center, to learn about their journeys to Zion and the sometimes harsh reality once they arrived in the Promised Land.

The delegation also went outside the comfort zone of some of the group (including me) and traveled to Bethlehem in the Palestinian territories to see and wrestle with the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.

RELATED: London Breed gets expansive view of Israel, from Haifa to Jerusalem

Finally, many in the group were surprised by the separation of men and women at the Western Wall and the complicated subject of religious pluralism. Indeed, at 75, Israel is still a relatively young country that is struggling to identify what it means to be a nation, a people and a democracy. However, we saw the value of the struggle, the benefit of dialogue and the importance of inclusion for building a society that thrives.

San Francisco is a beacon of inclusion in an increasingly cloudy America, which is reeling from a rise in antisemitism, racial violence and anti-gay laws and rhetoric. We need to keep our beacon lit and bright for the next generation seeking to make its home here.

Resiliency and creativity go hand in hand

It has been almost 35 years since the catastrophic Loma Prieta magnitude 6.9 earthquake that killed more than 60 people, injured thousands and caused billions of dollars in damages. Nobody knows when the next “big one” will strike and, in the meantime, we still have to worry about forest fires, sea level rise, terrorism, and, of course, deadly viruses.

Israel faces a degree of violent conflict that hopefully the Bay Area will never need to face. Instead of “hoping for the best,” Israel has used creativity to “plan for the worst.” We visited a remarkable area at Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center — a parking garage that can incredibly be transformed in 72 hours into an underground, fortified medical facility capable of treating 2,000 patients. The facility, created in 2014 in response to rockets from Lebanon, certainly wasn’t designed to deal with a pandemic, but it did just that during the early days of the coronavirus.

Our environment will continue to throw challenges in San Francisco’s direction too. To create real resiliency, we need to lean into technological and other creative solutions to protect ourselves from threats both today and tomorrow. In doing this, we can create a place where businesses that focus on resiliency — from climate sustainability to public health — can take root and succeed.

David Kaufman
David Kaufman

David Kaufman is the director of global strategies for the law firm Nixon Peabody and a member of the San Francisco-Haifa Sister City Committee.