Jewish community shmoozes with candidates at JCRC forum

Nearly 200 people filled the atrium of the Contemporary Jewish Museum last week for after-work drinks, snacks and a little political conversation.

Over plates of berries, baguettes and blue cheese, members of the Bay Area Jewish community chatted with 15 local candidates for office, including San Francisco school board member Jill Wynns and San Mateo County Board of Education trustee Rod Hsiao. The event, Civic Connection San Francisco 2016, was billed as an evening for relationship building, hosted by the Jewish Community Relations Council.

“This is really just a shmooze,” said Michael Sweet, JCRC board member and civic engagement committee co-chair. “It provides an opportunity for all the candidates to interact with the Jewish community and for the candidates to see the Jewish community here, visible.”

JCRC has been hosting these informal candidate sessions for more than a decade, said Jeremy Russell, the JCRC’s communications manager. In the midst of a busy campaign season, it’s a way to convene local Jewish leaders, community members and candidates to make personal connections and emphasize Jewish values and public service.

(left to right) Rita Semel, Jerilyn Gelt and state Sen. Mark Leno at JCRC Civic Connection 2016 photo/courtesy jcrc

Though the evening program was light on policy pronouncements, three poster displays outlined the JCRC’s 2016 consensus policy statement on economic justice, its yearlong series of town hall panels on racial justice and its new “Invest in Peace” campaign focused on supporting the self-determination of Palestinians and Israelis.

“This organization is the moral compass and social conscience not just of San Francisco, but the entire state of California,” said state Sen. Mark Leno, who represents San Francisco and surrounding areas. The one-time rabbinical student, who is being forced out of office by term limits, was the only candidate to speak.

“It’s a bittersweet time. As soon as I know what I want to be when I grow up, I’ll tell you,” said the 65-year-old Leno.

San Francisco Supervisors Scott Wiener and Jane Kim are competing for Leno’s Senate seat in one of the hottest local races of the 2016 election season. Neither candidate, however, made a showing at the JCRC event.

Alex Randolph, an incumbent running for City College board, greeted former JCRC executive director Rita Semel with a hug. Randolph, 33, had met Semel at a Catholic Charities dinner 10 years ago when he was working for then-Mayor Gavin Newsom.

“She’s amazing,” Randolph said. Semel connected Randolph with JCRC; he later traveled to Israel on a JCRC trip. JCRC hosts an annual tour of Israel for Bay Area politicians and community leaders. “It allowed me to get through the fog of the news media here,” Randolph said.

At the candidate event, Semel, who is well into her 90s, sat at a table by the side of the room and chatted with a steady stream of guests. She declined to make any endorsements, but said she is closely following the board of education race.

“I feel that an educated citizenry is critical for a democratic society,” Semel said.

JCRC will host an East Bay Civic Connection event at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley on Oct. 20.

Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a J. parenting columnist and former staff writer.