Thursday, July 12, 2012 | return to: cover story


Mission accomplished: After four years as Israeli consul general, Akiva Tor heads home

by dan pine, j. staff

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He already had a reputation as a Jewish community Superman long before he ran all the way from Oakland to the top of Mount Diablo.

On July 1, with mere weeks left on his four-year term as consul general of Israel for the Pacific Northwest region, and with 51-year-old knees, Akiva Tor began his midnight run toward the 3,300-foot East Bay peak.

Nine hours and 33 miles later, Tor reached the summit. He did it to raise money — more than $5,000 — for his synagogue, Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland. Though admittedly not in top shape when he committed to the run, he wasn’t about to let down his fellow congregants.

It was just one more mitzvah from a man who made an enormous difference to the Bay Area Jewish community during his stint at the S.F.-based consulate, starting in September 2008.

1_frontAn Ohio native who made aliyah when he was 24, Tor returns to Israel next month after finishing what he calls “my dream job. I’m going back with a very good feeling of accomplishment.”

Tor will soon hand over the reins to his successor, Andy David, currently a policy adviser to Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and a former Israeli deputy consul general in the Midwest. He will become the consul general in the San Francisco office in early August.

Tor’s tenure was marked with plenty of turmoil: a divest-from-Israel resolution in the U.C. Berkeley student senate that nearly passed; a controversial San Francisco Jewish Film Festival screening that led to new federation funding guidelines; and Iran divestment bills in the state Legislature.

There was good news, too, including deepened economic ties between Israel and Silicon Valley, and the region’s first local celebration of Israeli LGBT culture, sponsored by the consulate (and dreamed up by Tor).

Tor was always in the thick of it. In fact, friends and colleagues throughout the Jewish community agree on one thing: Whether at political shindigs, museum openings, Jewish federation events or throwing out the first pitch at an Oakland A’s game on Jewish Heritage Night, Tor always seemed to be everywhere at once.

There was a reason for that. Tor said when he first arrived in San Francisco four years ago, his predecessor, David Akov, sat him down for a conversation about the community.

“He said to me, ‘Akiva, it’s really very simple,’ ” Tor recalled. “ ‘Be a mensch with the [Jewish community].’ For me that meant answering invitations, being available and accessible. You can retain the august level of the office and still be very accessible.”

With Tor heading out, accolades have been pouring in. At a June 21 farewell event hosted by the American Jewish Committee, German consul general Peter Rothen said, “In the three years I’ve know Akiva, I’ve been envious of his incredible skills as a diplomat. It was obvious how popular and admired he was by his community.”

The Jewish Community Relations Council also held a farewell event for Tor. During it, Rabbi Doug Kahn, the JCRC’s executive director, called Tor “the consummate diplomat, [someone who] reached out far and wide, developed ambitious festivals, represented Israel not only in the Bay Area but throughout the Pacific Northwest.”

Rabbi Daniel Pressman, in the newsletter for Congregation Beth David in Saratoga, pointed out how he was surprised to get a phone call from a newly arrived Tor four years ago, wanting to get better acquainted. “This had never happened before,” Pressman wrote.

Aliva Tor in his Piedmont backyard   photo/michael fox
Aliva Tor in his Piedmont backyard photo/michael fox
“That positive first impression held true,” Pressman added. “Akiva came to speak at Beth David on several occasions. He formed friendships with many rabbis across the religious spectrum. … He was honest, unflappable and respectful to all.”

For Tor, the most important aspect of his tenure has been his family’s successful sojourn here. His wife, Naomi, and four children thrived in the Bay Area, with Naomi teaching third- and sixth-grade Hebrew at Oakland Hebrew Day School, and the kids attending local Jewish day schools.

“They all did really well,” Tor said. “They made friends and learned a lot about the world. They came from a [Orthodox] school [in Israel] to a school where same-sex parents are de rigueur. They’re much, much better for it.”

As for his consular duties, Tor said he always did his best to promote Israel and represent the country’s interests.

That wasn’t always an easy mission to carry out.

Tor arrived in the summer of 2008, having previously served as Israel’s consul general in Taiwan and as deputy director of Palestinian affairs in Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

He knew the region, though attractive for many reasons, would pose challenges. For one thing, he is a practicing Modern Orthodox Jew. Before arriving, some colleagues wondered how an observant, kippah-wearing consul general would fare among nude Bay to Breakers runners and Berkeleyites to the left of left-wingers.

“People said you shouldn’t be sending an Orthodox diplomat to the Bay Area because it’s such a liberal community,” Tor recalled. “My father was a Hillel director at Kent State [in Ohio], and Orthodox. He spent his whole life working with a mostly non-Orthodox population, so I saw no problem whatsoever.”

As for the delicate political, economic and cultural issues any Israeli consul general would face in the Bay Area, Tor said he had a not-so-secret weapon.

“The Israeli diplomat has the Jewish community,” he said. “You can’t get your job done without it.”

A year into his tenure, chaos erupted at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival when it screened “Rachel,” a documentary about pro-Palestinian activist Rachel Corrie, who was killed in 2003 while protesting in Gaza. Her mother, Cindy Corrie, was invited to speak.

The July 2009 event, at which filmgoers jeered a pro-Israel speaker, invited at the last minute to counterbalance Cindy Corrie’s appearance, outraged many in the Jewish community. Festival officials were blasted for inviting Corrie and selecting to screen “Rachel” in the first place. Others blasted the festival’s funders, in particular the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

Tor knew he had to jump into the fire.

Akiva Tor shows Israeli pride at the LGBT Pride Parade in San Francisco.
Akiva Tor shows Israeli pride at the LGBT Pride Parade in San Francisco.
“I was upset that the festival invited Cindy Corrie,” he said. “To show the film was fine, but just like we wouldn’t invite Israeli victims of terror to speak at the festival because they are not film creators, it was an inappropriate step. It was also clear that the festival is an important tool for Jewish continuity, and there was no way we could allow it to be grievously harmed because of a misstep.”

Daniel Sokatch served as federation CEO at the time. Now the CEO of the New Israel Fund, Sokatch remembered Tor’s position on the “Rachel” controversy as “the principled, nuanced, sane and thoughtful one we came to expect from him. He refused to join the witch hunt. He was able to say you can disagree with a decision a federation makes without tarring and feathering it as anti-Israel. You can be pro-Israel in many ways.”

In the months after the festival, Tor worked with leaders at the federation and JCRC to create guidelines for grantees that drew boundaries for acceptable discourse regarding Israel.

The guidelines, issued in February 2010, generated their own controversy, with some in the community feeling they did not go far enough, while others claiming they would have a chilling effect on free speech.

“We had to find a common center, which is pro-Israel without being doctrinaire, and allowing for a healthy diversity of opinion,” Tor said. “The adoption of guidelines helped the community achieve balance. There was a lot of grumbling, but it was clear to me that that was exactly what was required.”

While the film festival is a Jewish-run event, incidents also occur outside of the Jewish community — often calling for maximum diplomatic skills.

Tor cited a 2011 seminar at U.C. Hastings College of the Law titled “Litigating Palestine,” noting that it was essentially a workshop on how to damage Israel through the tactic of “lawfare.” The event had the approval and sponsorship of the San Francisco university, until Tor and others intervened.

Though the event took place, U.C. Hastings withdrew its sponsorship, and a scheduled speech by the school’s dean at the conference was canceled.

“You have to educate educated people about what is happening,” Tor said. “When people are aware that there is a pathological process [to anti-Israel arguments], generally we get the results we need.”

Perhaps that lesson was never better applied than during the April 2010 fight at U.C. Berkeley, where the student senate nearly instituted an Israel divestment resolution.

The resolution passed after hours of vitriolic debate, but was then vetoed by senate president Will Smelko. After another all-night debate, the effort to override the veto failed — and the fledgling BDS movement suffered what some saw as a surprising loss.

Tor during his Mount Diablo run
Tor during his Mount Diablo run
Tor saw this battle as a potential tipping point. Had divestment won on the Berkeley campus, it could have opened the floodgates to similar resolutions at campuses across the country. So Tor went to Berkeley and sat through the entire string of debates and votes.

“By being there, you give the event greater stature than it deserves,” he recalled. “On the other hand, I had to be there to raise morale among the Jewish students in the pro-Israel forces. The atmosphere was insidious, poisonous and frightening. I didn’t think the Jewish students should be left alone there. They needed to know the State of Israel was with them completely.”

Tor credited U.C. Berkeley Hillel and the Jewish students for the victory, though his pep talk before the vote may have had something to do with it, too.

“I met with the Jewish students the night before the [first] vote,” Tor remembered, “and I said to them if we lose, the State of Israel will not be destroyed. But we have to do our very utmost, and right at this moment you are at the center of the struggle in the defense of Israel.”

Two years later, Smelko credits Tor for playing a major role in the measure’s ultimate defeat.

“A lot of eyes were watching this,” Smelko said this week, “and he helped students think about the ramifications. He really took an active role educating me on the moral implications, which was especially important for me when deciding whether to veto. He said this is not right, this is morally wrong, and he explained to me why it was wrong.”

That victory dovetailed with another — this one in the California Legislature.

Before Tor arrived, lawmakers had already passed a bill mandating that CalPERS and CalSTRS (the state’s public pensions) divest from companies doing business with Iran. However, compliance and enforcement had been lax.

So Tor teamed up with politicians such as Sen. Joel Anderson (the author of the original bill) and Assembly Speaker John Peréz to find ways to force the pension funds to divest. It took a few years, but the effort finally worked.

“No one has done more to further the interests of California and Israel,” Peréz said of Tor at the June 21 event. “He turned what was always a warm and positive relationship into a true friendship.”

While Tor seemed omnipresent in the Bay Area, his region included Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska, and he made frequent visits to those states to meet with politicians and Jewish community leaders.

Akiva Tor throws out the first pitch at the Oakland A’s Jewish Heritage Night in May 2011.
Akiva Tor throws out the first pitch at the Oakland A’s Jewish Heritage Night in May 2011.
Wendy Rosen is the Seattle regional director of the American Jewish Committee. She worked closely with Tor over the years, especially when anti-Israel activists got busy in her region.

“I don’t think Israel could have sent a better representative,” Rosen said. “There is an active anti-Israel voice here in the Pacific Northwest and it weighed heavily on Akiva. He helped us when we were facing the potential of [anti-Israel] bus ads up and down the streets of Seattle. He was vital in our strategy, helping us understand the reality of the messaging of the ads.”

Tor isn’t leaving completely satisfied, saying that his biggest disappointment was not sending more young Jews to Israel on Birthright trips. Currently 65 percent of applicants are put on a waiting list, and most never reapply.

“I failed,” he said bluntly. “The wait list has not budged. Birthright is the only trip that touches the majority of Jews who are not affiliated. The only way to catch them and bring them back [to Judaism] is Birthright, and we can’t afford to have holes in our net.”

Birthright matters to Tor because, in addition to his responsibilities to the State of Israel, he also cares deeply about Jewish identity.

“A pro-Israel position cannot be the totality of Jewish observance,” Tor said. “I can’t pass my politics on to my child. I can only pass my values on to my child. Values are part of identity. So we need a deeper Yiddishkeit. That will generate pro-Israel support.”

For himself and his family, that meant living in an area of the Bay Area that is Orthodox-friendly, with schools, synagogue and kosher food all within walking distance (Tor defines “walking distance” as anything within six miles). So the family took up residence in the East Bay — a first for an Israeli consul general — in a Piedmont house near Oakland’s Grand Lake neighborhood, which includes a kosher bakery, a kosher market and a kosher Israeli restaurant.

At nearby Beth Jacob, Tor managed to shed the mantle of consul general and become just another congregant.

“At Beth Jacob, there’s a special rule,” Tor said. “The congregation knows exactly who I am, and there’s a lot of kavod [honor], but also a clear understanding that I’m not on duty. I’m expected to read Torah like everyone else. The shul is honored that the consul general and family are members, but we’re accepted as regular members. We pay dues and fulfill all our duties to the shul.”

Rabbi Judah Dardik, the spiritual leader at Beth Jacob, agreed with that assessment.

“I didn’t get the sense he was ‘on’ in the shul,” Dardik said. “On the contrary, they were members of the community, involved as community members and not as representatives of the State of Israel.”

Tor celebrates Chanukah with  former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chabad Rabbi Shlomo Cunin at a menorah  lighting in Sacramento in December 2010.
Tor celebrates Chanukah with former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chabad Rabbi Shlomo Cunin at a menorah lighting in Sacramento in December 2010.
“He’s just a normal person who likes to engage people and know about their lives,” added Michael Sosebee, a Beth Jacob congregant who became a friend to Tor. “We’ve had heart-to-heart talks about being a dad. We became part of each other’s families, always going to each other’s houses for dinner.”

Because they were running buddies, Tor approached Sosebee to float his idea of running from Oakland to Mount Diablo. The latter thought his Israeli friend had lost his mind.

“Because he’s so busy, he never had time to train for it,” Sosebee said. “His longest run before this was

11 miles, and yet I knew he was going to finish it once he signed up for it.”

Tor departed from Beth Jacob at midnight, running straight up into the Oakland hills and then wending his way through the East Bay hills toward Mount Diablo State Park in Contra Costa County. Sosebee, in his car, would check on his friend every few miles during the nighttime hours, though Tor’s main companions were deer.

Up Shepherd Canyon Road, across Skyline Boulevard, and down through Lafayette and Walnut Creek, Tor munched on Clif Bars and energizing jelly beans. Sosebee met him at the Mount Diablo gate, and the two ran the last 11 miles together. Near the end, Tor’s left calf cramped up and he had to walk — or hobble — the final mile.

But he made it to the summit, despite exhaustion and pain.

The run works well as a metaphor for Tor’s determination to serve his country.

“He really lives and breathes Israel,” Sosebee said, “and thinks how he can help Israel all the time. He was always trying to find connection. He will talk to anybody about Israel.”

Tor will continue to do so, but from his home base of Beit Shemesh, a city just west of Jerusalem.

The lifelong diplomat is not sure what his next assignment will be, but he hopes to stay in Israel for several years before heading overseas again. He said he’d like to work “on the policy side” in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, train new cadets or, eventually, serve as ambassador in another posting.

For the moment, he will look back on a job well done in a place where he will be missed.

“I think Akiva sets a high bar,” said Mark Reisbaum, chief endowment officer with the Jewish Community Federation. “He’s so comfortable in his skin as a religious Jew, as a learned Jew, an Israeli and a statesman.”

Added Sokatch: “I don’t have the superlatives to describe who he is as a diplomat and representative of Israel. He has been an exemplary consul general. It’s almost hard to imagine that they got it so right in sending Akiva Tor to San Francisco. I’m going to miss him terribly.”

Tor said he, too, will miss the Bay Area and the friends he made here — though he quickly added that all are welcome to come visit the Tor family in Israel.

“I did the job,” he said. “You don’t want people to get sick of you. There has to be a changing of the guard.”


cover photo/michael fox


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