Talking with … San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wienerby emma silvers, j. staff
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Name: Scott Wiener
Position: Elected in 2010 to San Francisco Board of Supervisors
J.: What was your childhood like? Did you have a Jewish upbringing?
Scott Wiener: I was born in Philadelphia, but by the time I was 3 we lived in Turnersville, N.J., a rural area that was transitioning to becoming a suburb. There were very few Jews there. Some of our neighbors had never met a Jew before. There was also no synagogue in town, so when I was very young, about 10 or 12 families came together and founded a Conservative congregation. We used the local Lutheran church for services on Friday evenings — put a sheet over the cross — and an Orthodox rabbi from half an hour away would [arrive] before sunset on Friday, and stay at my home until Saturday at sundown. We’d walk with him to evening services and back. A lot of my world, my friends, revolved around the synagogue.
J.: What was it like in school, as one of the only Jewish kids?
SW: In high school, I was one of two Jews in a class of 500 or 600. There were some anti-Semitic slurs. I was called “kike” a number of times. I remember in sixth grade our social studies textbook had a statement about the Jews begging the Romans to kill Jesus, and I took it home and showed my parents, who were very upset, and the rabbi came and met with the principal, and they stopped using that book. But then two years later, when my sister was in sixth grade, they were using it again.
J.: How did you decide to go into politics? Do you think your Judaism affects the issues you choose to focus on?
SW: Absolutely. Being Jewish in a non-Jewish area affected my politics in terms of the importance of tolerance, in terms of diversity. A few years before I graduated, the invocation for that year’s high school graduation took a very religious Christian slant, and this was in the ’80s, well after the Supreme Court decision about prayer in schools. So I was part of a committee that formed to look at the role of religion in schools. Some people weren’t happy about that … there was an anonymous threat to put a burning cross on my lawn, that kind of thing.
Those kinds of experiences are the formative ones — along with coming out as gay — that emphasized the importance of looking out for people who are marginalized.
J.: How does that play into the legislation you recently introduced to the Board of Supervisors, asking San Francisco’s retirement fund to consider divesting the $37 million it has invested in Russian securities as a statement against the country’s recent attacks on LGBT rights?
SW: As a Jew, I’ve unfortunately always been very aware of how problematic Russian society and government are in terms of mistreatment and violence toward minorities. So when I started to hear about both this draconian legislation, which really is reminiscent of 1930s Germany, and seeing videos of violent bullying of young gay people, it turned my stomach. It brought back all sorts of memories about what [Russia] had done to Jews — it didn’t stop at bullying; it was about killing people. So we have to take a strong stand.
J.: What kind of response have you gotten?
SW: Very positive. It’s such a tiny percentage of the fund’s assets — about .22 percent — that I’ve asked them to evaluate. In general I have been disappointed that the [anti-gay attacks and legislation] were really briefly in the mainstream press and then went away. I want our federal government to take a much stronger stance, to offer asylum to LGBT people from Russia if they want it, and I think San Francisco, as one of the epicenters of the fight against Soviet repression, can be a part of that.
J.: Because we pretty much have to ask: Do you have any favorite spots for Jewish food in the Bay Area?
SW: I like home cooking for that kind of thing. Especially kugel.
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