New JCRC executive logs activist record with blacks and gays

Felice Sheramy's father survived the Holocaust, so she is familiar on a very personal level with one of Judaism's darkest chapters.

But while that darkness has informed Sheramy's view of Judaism, it has by no means colored it entirely.

"To me, Judaism is about a lot of rejoicing and learning," says Sheramy, the new associate director of the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Relations Council. "I think our life-cycle events, our holiday cycles, are filled with richness and with wonder and with beauty."

This outlook could well make Sheramy, who is about to turn 30, a wonderful rabbi. She laughs at the suggestion and quotes German theologian Franz Rosenzweig: "Not yet." For now, she believes her place is next to Rabbi Doug Kahn helping to lead the local JCRC.

Sheramy, who replaces former JCRC associate director Jerry Isaak-Shapiro, comes to the Bay Area from a similar position at the Community Relations Council in Palm Beach, Fla. which she directed for two years.

There, among other things, Sheramy was instrumental in establishing the area's first Jewish-sponsored homeless shelter. She helped mobilize the Jewish community to vote against the proposed repeal of a city ordinance protecting gays and lesbians, and helped organize a freedom celebration that brought together 500 blacks and Jews.

"I find it very rewarding to bring people of different backgrounds and political ideologies around the table to address issues that affect our lives," she says.

"I strongly believe in the ability of local small groups to come together, work out differences, find common ground."

Raised in a Conservative Jewish home in New Haven, Conn., Sheramy studied economics at the University of Michigan.

She first dipped into Jewish communal life when she chaired a federation annual campaign while a law student at the University of Connecticut. Upon graduating, she practiced civil rights law for a year, but found the lure of Jewish communal work too strong to resist and accepted the position in Palm Beach.

"I feel it's a privilege to work for the Jewish community," she says. "I have met such impressive people who care deeply about the future of the Jewish people."

As Sheramy talks about what she hopes to achieve in her work here, it is clear she fits into that category.

She speaks passionately about helping to formulate a plan to offset the effects federal budget cuts might have on Jewish communal agencies, for example, and says that as a Jewish community professional she can create avenues through which people can express their Judaism.

To be sure, moving across the country to take on a new job is a huge, and potentially nerve-wracking, life change. But as soon as Sheramy heard of the opening at the JCRC here, she wanted to make the move. She was familiar with the work of the local JCRC, she says, and had met Kahn at gatherings of the umbrella organization for national JCRCs. She had even asked his advice on various matters while in Palm Beach.

Accepting the new position "was just in my heart," she says. "I knew this was the right decision."

Sitting in her office overlooking San Francisco Bay, Sheramy seems more sure than ever. "I love this place," she says, pointing over her shoulder toward the Golden Gate Bridge.

Since arriving in late October 1995, Sheramy has spent plenty of time exploring both sides of that bridge.

In addition to hiking, biking, reading and writing letters, she also counts bread-baking as one of her hobbies and proudly announces that she recently baked her first challah.

When it comes to Judaism, in fact, Sheramy says in many ways her learning is just beginning.

"It's a big joy of mine," she says.