Tal Mor (left), an Israeli-American, and Sam Mogannam, a Palestinian-American, who organize weekly gatherings for people to process their feelings about the Israel-Gaza war, pose together at the 18 Reasons culinary school in San Francisco on June 14, 2024. (Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Tal Mor (left), an Israeli-American, and Sam Mogannam, a Palestinian-American, who organize weekly gatherings for people to process their feelings about the Israel-Gaza war, pose together at the 18 Reasons culinary school in San Francisco on June 14, 2024. (Aaron Levy-Wolins)

Owners of Loquat and Bi-Rite find recipe for talking freely about Israel and Gaza

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Shortly after Oct. 7, Tal Mor and Sam Mogannam ran into each other in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset. One is Israeli American, one is Palestinian American. Both own successful food businesses in the city.

“It felt so good to see Sam,” Mor said. “The thing that I remember most was the hug. It felt like the hug we both needed.”

Like many people with close connections to Israel and Gaza, they each had been feeling isolated since Hamas’ shocking attack on southern Israel that killed 1,200 people, with another 250 taken hostage into Gaza. Israel’s military response hadn’t yet begun, but Mor and Mogannam both feared the pain and bloodshed when the war inevitably started.

They were friendly through San Francisco’s culinary community. Their ethnic backgrounds had come up just once or twice in passing in the 13 years they’d known each other.

Mor opened the Hayes Valley bakery Loquat in 2022, creating baked goods from throughout the Jewish diaspora. He was born in Israel and immigrated with his family to Cupertino when he was a child; his father is from Iraq and his mother is of Ashkenazi descent from Jerusalem. He is also a partner in Four Barrel Coffee and the Mill.

Mogannam was born and raised in San Francisco. His parents emigrated from Ramallah and Bethlehem in the West Bank. He is the co-owner of Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco, as well as Bi-Rite Creamery and Bi-Rite Catering. He also is co-founder of 18 Reasons, a nonprofit cooking school and community space.

After that initial encounter, Mogannam reached out to Mor.

“I felt a tremendous need to have a dialogue with somebody with a different perspective,” he said.

Although the war made its presence known in the San Francisco food world early on, with boycotts of Israeli restaurants and the vandalizing of a Jewish-owned ice cream shop, here were two people looking to bridge the gap instead.

In fact, they already had much in common. Not only do both run businesses in the Mission District and have family roots in the Middle East, they chose the same private school for their children. Mogannam’s kids attended San Francisco Friends School, and Mor’s children are there now. The school is rooted in Quaker principles, and even though Mor, 40, is a secular Jew and Mogannam, 56, comes from the tiny Catholic minority of Palestinians, both were drawn by the Quaker values, where peace and equality are central tenets.

Tal Mor, the owner of Loquat bakery in San Francisco, poses at the 18 Reasons culinary school on June 14, 2024. (Aaron Levy-Wolins)

They soon met again.

“I felt so much relief in just having a conversation and learning how Sam felt,” Mor said. “And also him listening to me share the same. It was healing.”

They quickly realized that if they benefited from this kind of interaction, perhaps others could, too.

Their vision was a gathering based on Quaker worship meetings, where people speak when moved to do so and silence follows.

It was an experiment, and they wondered if anyone would come. They invited people they knew, including Palestinian and Jewish business owners and parents at the Friends School who are neither Palestinian nor Jewish. The two men aimed to create a space where people of different backgrounds and perspectives could listen, learn and expand their empathy.

If no one else showed up, the two figured they would continue to talk to each other. But they needn’t have worried. The meetings, which have drawn as many as 15 people, have been continuing weekly since January. Six to 10 people show up on average.

Among the guidelines: “Speak your truth. Avoid generalizations. Be curious. Embrace tension as the seed of learning.” Among the stated purposes: “To realize our shared humanity — hold those who are suffering in the light. To challenge our own ideas and others’ ideas in a respectful environment. To break biases, challenge personal beliefs.” 

Mogannam comes up with a general theme for each meeting, usually something relevant he’s read or watched online recently, and asks people to share a family story or reflect on the theme. No one responds directly to the speaker, and long periods of silence follow.

The two themes with the most resonance have been listening and dignity. “Personal stories are so powerful,” Mogannam said. “There’s so much to learn from each one.”

Bob Rosner, a San Francisco resident and member of Congregation Emanu-El, has been involved since the beginning. Mogannam invited him to participate, as he’s a longtime customer of Bi-Rite and has become a friend.

Sam Mogannam, co-owner of Bi-Rite poses at the 18 Reasons culinary school in San Francisco on June 14, 2024. (Aaron Levy-Wolins)

“Really, this is all about narrative, and we can have a situation where two things can be true at once,” Rosner said. “Listening to other people’s stories has made me a more compassionate person.”

Kathryn Grantham, who is half-Lebanese, was invited by her friend Mor when she checked in with him in the early days of the Israel-Hamas war. She, too, has hardly missed a meeting.

“I can sit with someone who clearly sees one side because of my work in this group,” she said. “I’ve strengthened the muscle of sitting with someone who has a different perspective and really listening, and being able to hold the complexity of it. I’m feeling in community with people on a different level. These are skills that are helping me be a better human.” 

Mor said that as someone who identifies as Jewish, Israeli and half-Arab, he’s often asked for his opinions or insights about what’s happening in the Middle East. He said his participation in the group has made him feel more comfortable responding to those questions.

“Speaking about the nuance of it is not something we generally have the space to do,” he said. “Many of the conversations I had would just devolve really quickly because it’s so divisive, but this has helped me gain those skills.”

He also said that he’s gotten to know, befriend and build community with Palestinians through the group.

“It’s incredibly powerful when you feel a shared experience with someone who you assume has opposing viewpoints,” Mor said. “Realizing this creates empathy and deep connection.”

Mogannam said the stories he’s heard have inspired him to read more, too.

“I’ve learned so much about Judaism, Palestinianism, Israel and the Israeli experience, Israeli history, Jewish history and my own Palestinian history,” he said. “We have the same experience, the same trauma and grief, the same values. We both need and deserve love, dignity and self-determination.”

That Mogannam and Mor agreed to participate in this J. article was not a given, especially in light of how polarizing things have been, with many people feeling pressured to “choose sides” and stick with the talking points. Yet both feel strongly committed to what they’ve started.

“I believe that what we’re doing right now is a good thing,” Mogannam said. “There are other ways of being than staying in our own echo chambers and screaming the vitriol that’s on social media. We need more ways to create understanding and inspire hope.”

He said he has long considered himself a community leader first and foremost, and that food has been his mechanism to bring people together for decades.

“I believe in the power of community, in the power of humility, in the power of hope, and that when something good is taking place it needs to be shared,” Mogannam said. “Not doing it would have been a selfish act.”

While they are aware that dialogue in San Francisco isn’t going to bring change to the Middle East, they consider it a form of activism. They try not to miss any meetings despite their hectic schedules because the gatherings provide a bit of hope when the news is so often devastating.

Both say they’re committed to keeping the gatherings going. They hope that hearing and reading about their group will inspire other people to start their own. They will share the resources they’ve created if interested people email them at [email protected]. “I think that we’re the only ones that are going to be able to solve this,” Mogannam said. “We keep looking to the rest of the world, but they have their own ulterior motives. We have to help each other. It’s going to have to start with us. This space has helped me help myself to lead with more love.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."