After 2 years, Israel consul general leaving for Toronto

Years ago, Jehudi Kinar thumbed through phone books when he reached a new community to find Jewish names.

"According to the pages of Cohens or Levis or Levines, you know how big a Jewish community is," he explains.

Today, Israel's S.F.-based consul general for the Pacific Northwest does not need the White Pages to find Jews. But he still reaches out to them.

"Jewish community is very near to my heart," he says.

Kinar, 54, who is leaving San Francisco next month after two years here to become Israel's consul general in Toronto, has been seeking Jews for a long time.

Back in 1968, the Dutch-born Kinar and a friend went to Moscow, Leningrad and Soviet-occupied Lithuania, where one Passover morning they dared to don kippot and walk the streets of Vilna.

They were embarking on a secret Israeli mission that sent pairs of young diaspora Jewish students behind the Iron Curtain to ferret out landsmen (fellow Jews).

"By midday, most of the community knew we were there," he recalls. "We wanted them to know they weren't alone."

The effort to find Jews deeply moved Kinar. He made aliyah (immigrated) to Israel the following year.

Israel, he felt, was "this country that really takes care of everybody."

Kinar knew he wanted to "be a part of a majority" since growing up in Amsterdam. That pull may have begun when he was 16 months old, and the Nazis occupied Holland. In an effort to save their son, Kinar's parents gave him to the Jewish underground. While they and his older sister were eventually deported to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Kinar lived in an orphanage, then with a nurse, and finally in Sweden.

In 1946, at age 5, he was reunited with his family, which had survived, in Amsterdam. He was raised in a modern Orthodox home, and remains observant today.

Armed with a political science degree from the University of Geneva and speaking six languages, Kinar joined Israel's Foreign Ministry in 1970 after marrying a sabra, Ruthi; he eventually changed his name from Kanarek to Kinar.

After a brief stint at a private investment firm, he returned to the ministry, doing tours at Israeli embassies in the Hague and in Bonn. He directed the ministry's European division from Jerusalem before heading west with his daughter, Yael (his son, Yaron, was serving in the Israeli army).

Kinar took over the consulate's top job from Harry Kney-Tal at a time when Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization were signing a peace pact and the consulate was moving to a new Montgomery Street office. The switch proved appropriate, for Kinar was well-suited for a transition from hard-nosed politics to peaceful diplomacy.

"Jehudi is a very warm, straightforward and engaging human being, and ultimately the people who represent Israel are judged by who they are," says Ami Nahshon, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay. "Jehudi's different style mirrors a different time of peace building, [and can] face this time of community-building."

As peace dawned, Kinar campaigned for Israel on several fronts. He worked behind the scenes as an impresario of sorts, organizing groundbreaking cultural events such as Palestinian-Israeli poetry readings aimed at showcasing Israel's full flavor.

"He created a face for Israel that is very authentic," Nahshon says.

Kinar also made inroads into Jewish communities in the consulate's Pacific Northwest region. While consulate chiefs routinely get to know local Jewish officials, Kinar took his job a few steps further.

Like to Alaska.

This spring, Kinar trekked to Anchorage and Fairbanks, where he spoke at local synagogues and even played top dog on a racing sled. "I was a Jewish musher," he says.

Later, Kinar headed to Billings, Mont., where he met with civic officials who battled neo-Nazis and contacted a countryman — Billings Symphony Orchestra conductor Uri Barnea. Kinar also helped cement ties between potato farmers and Israeli irrigation experts. And when Kinar stopped in Seattle, he gave local journalists the latest spin on Israel.

Back home, Kinar has reached out to the Bay Area Jewish community, making inroads and hitting obstacles along the way.

He fondly recalls the local physician who had never been Jewishly involved. But after meeting Kinar, the doctor visited a Jerusalem hospital and began vigorous fundraising for the facility. Kinar calls it a victory.

"In less than one year he's been to Israel twice — at age 65," Kinar says.

Yet Kinar regrets that most American Jews have never visited Israel — and he includes most Bay Area Jews.

"I hear of the 80 percent of people who haven't been to Israel. It seems I'm meeting them," he says. Similarly, few Jews get involved in Jewish life closer to home, and Kinar regrets this too.

"We shouldn't forget, we've got 225,000 Jews in this area," he says.

That Jewish passivity in the Bay Area surfaces in the shortage of Jewish day schools, he says.

"That there's only one Jewish high school in this area is a scandal," he says. "In Antwerp there are 15,000 Jews and three Jewish high schools. If you speak about Jewish continuity, you need Jewish schools. It's like you have two synagogues — if you don't like one, you go to the other."

His disappointment reflects his abiding belief in his own role, which he considers that of a teacher. In some ways, Kinar has not traveled far from his days finding Jews in Lithuania.

"It is educating people about what Israel means to Jews," he says — and teaching what community means to a man whose name means, simply, "Jew."