Hired to represent the Jewish community to the public, Julie Golde just got her first lesson in civics from none other than the troubled Oakland school district.
The lesson: Public relations comes with lots of hats.
Golde, director of the East Bay branch of the Jewish Community Relations Council, broke in her peacemaker hat when an activist representing the school district took a swipe at Jews.
Before a tense crowd of schools employees, politicians and parents, the activist, Oscar Wright, described the school district's problems as symptomatic of "white and Jewish control," according to newspaper accounts.
The December gathering at Oakland City Hall was a press conference held by California Sen. Don Perata (D-Alameda). The statesman was to announce his plans to replace the embattled Oakland schools Superintendent Carole Quan. Instead, he was shouted down by disgruntled administrators and activists, many of them Quan supporters.
Wright, who is co-chair of the school district's Task Force on African-American Students, sparked a public outcry with his slur. The comment came up over and again in newspaper columns and public meetings.
The incident was the first public relations crisis that Golde, 36, faced as a JCRC official. Before that, she and her board had talked of collaborating with the school district on educational issues, but had not yet approached the school board.
After Wright's statement, Golde found herself in the awkward position of making introductions over a conflict.
"We had been talking about being pro-active" with educational issues, said Golde, initially unhappy about opening a dialogue amidst political fallout.
But "something positive came out of it," she said.
While writing a concerned letter to the board, Golde discovered that several trustees had already publicly denounced Wright. Yet, the real silver lining was that recent board appointee Dan Siegel, who is Jewish, expressed his interest in working with the JCRC.
Golde said Siegel will meet with JCRC staff and board members to talk about how the Jewish community can help educational affairs in Oakland.
Golde said the slur incident underscores the challenges she faces in the diverse East Bay — from warding off anti-Semitism in public office to liaising Jewish communities in the Oakland, Walnut Creek, Concord and southern Alameda County areas.
"The regions are so different," Golde said. "A lot of the Jewish community in Oakland do not send their kids to public schools, where the Jewish community in Walnut Creek does."
Golde, an Oakland resident, last fall replaced former JCRC director Siggy Rubinson, who relocated to New York with her family.
Golde was previously the founding director of Tzavta, a young-adult program of the Israel Center. She also has worked as a fund-raiser and leadership programmer for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and as a fund-raiser for American Friends of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
As for her goals, Golde said that she and her board want to further define the East Bay's JCRC, which had been an independent organization before becoming a branch of the S.F.-based JCRC two years ago. The East Bay JCRC still has its own board.
Race relations and working with other ethnic groups are high on her agenda — "the East Bay is a hotbed of potential for those kinds of relationships," Golde said.
JCRC board member Ivy Cohen said such alliances begin with the right networking.
"We've been focusing on [meeting] elected officials from all levels of office from the school board to members of Congress," she said.
Cohen noted that Golde in the coming year will keep a tight schedule of appointments with such leaders.
"Julie is insightful, an impressive organizer, and very thoughtful in terms of approaching complicated issues in a community with evolving politics," she said.
Neither Golde nor her board has a plan of attack yet, but are working to educate themselves on where in the public arena they can be most effective.
Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the JCRC and Golde's supervisor, said the partnership of the two JCRCs has allowed both agencies to pool resources toward common goals.
While the regional agendas may vary somewhat, he said, "the issues that traditionally concern the Jewish community, such as schools, are not that different in East Bay than anywhere else."
Meanwhile, it will take more than a JCRC letter to tackle the ethnic strife in the Oakland school district. Wright's statement set off a short-lived ripple of public disgust. The school board let go of the matter with a public condemnation of the slur. And Golde, as a result, forged a partnership with the board.
Who knows which hat she'll try on next?