JCRC: 60 years as human relations clearinghouse

The call came late in the morning. Someone phoned the San Francisco headquarters of the Jewish Community Relations Council to say she would be coming down to the office with a bomb. Police prepared to evacuate the building. Rabbi Doug Kahn, newly installed executive director of the JCRC, put his staff on high alert.

Everyone watched and waited.

As promised, the suspect soon approached the building. When surrounded by police, the terrified elderly woman held aloft not a bomb but a bond. An Israel Bond. She wanted to redeem it.

It isn’t often the bomb squad shows up at the JCRC. Most days, the work of the organization is conducted with unobtrusive efficiency. But as the organization celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, its three executive directors, past and present, look back with pride on the role JCRC has played in Bay Area Jewish life.

Earl Raab, Rita Semel and Doug Kahn don’t get together frequently, but the three were all smiles last week reminiscing about their collective tenures at the helm.

The three will be honored at a dinner celebrating the 60th anniversary, to be held Tuesday, Oct. 26, at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

Through decades of pitched battles against anti-Semitism and injustice, Raab, Semel and Kahn agree, the JCRC always embodied the voice of reason.

“We did everything by consensus,” says Semel, “and always with a certain civility.”

Kahn concurs: “The quality of our discussions have been unique in Jewish communal life.”

The JCRC’s behind-the-scenes approach to problem-solving has kept the organization out of the spotlight, but its leaders have worked tirelessly to build alliances with the broader community. Time and time again, those bridge-building efforts paid off.

“In 1952, we set up a Bay Area human relations clearinghouse,” recalls Raab. “Every week we had a meeting with representatives with the NAACP, the Urban League, Japanese groups, Catholic groups. This planted seeds.”

As proof, Raab cites the community response to the 1975 U.N. resolution equating Zionism and racism. “The JCRC had a rally in Union Square,” he says. “They all came: the Urban League, the NAACP, ministers, Catholics.”

That kind of success story gives Raab particular satisfaction. The New York native and journalist was hired to run the fledgling organization in 1951, after first meeting Jewish activist Eugene Block. Near the end of World War II, Block had become editor of the Jewish Bulletin and later developed the JCRC out of what had been an offshoot of B’nai B’rith.

“The mission was to protect the Jews here and abroad,” says Raab. “In the beginning, it was about running down anti-Semites, and secondarily changing attitudes.”

Semel had known Block even longer than Raab, having joined the Bulletin staff during the war. (She had to sign a paper promising to give up the job to a man once the GIs came home, but she ended up staying.) “Gene was a child of the 1906 earthquake and fire,” remembers Semel. “He grew up with the city after that. He set the tone for the JCRC.”

Highlights vary for each of the three executive directors, but all have juicy stories to tell. Raab remembers the dramatic surge in local Jewish pride after Israel’s triumphant Six-Day War in 1967. “It was the summer of love,” says Raab, “and knocking on the door of the JCRC was a group of Jewish hippies who came in wanting to do something to support Israel.”

Raab, a lifelong progressive, notes with disappointment how anti-Semitism gradually shifted from the political right wing to the left wing over the years. On the plus side, he marvels at the virtual disappearance of quotas, which formerly limited academic and professional opportunities for Jews.

“Twenty-five percent of California employers once said they wouldn’t hire Jews no matter how qualified,” he says. “After World War II, we knew the only way Jews would be secure is if democracy was secure.”

Raab served as JCRC director from 1951 until 1987, when Semel took the helm. She had long been affiliated with the JCRC by then, and was well acquainted with its mission. Among her favorite memories: co-organizing a 1964 San Francisco interfaith conference on segregation at the height of the civil rights movement.

She’s also proud of the local JCRC’s sometimes maverick positions. When sister organizations around the country took a stand against public menorah lightings (citing church-state separation), JCRC executives here saw things differently. “In seasonal times, temporary religious expressions were proper,” she says. “Union Square [where Chabad wanted to stage the event] was a public place but not a seat of government.”

But Raab, Semel and Kahn all agree that JCRC’s “finest hour” may have been its efforts on behalf of Soviet Jewry. “We got involved long before it was a national movement,” recalls Kahn.

Raab remembers JCRC holding Soviet Jewry rallies in Union Square as far back as the 1950s. Decades later, Semel recalls fighting then-mayor of San Francisco, Dianne Feinstein, over a proposal to make Leningrad a sister city. The imbroglio grew so heated, Feinstein even tracked Semel down at her doctor’s office in the middle of an exam.

“My stock went up at the doctor’s after that,” she says with a laugh.

The battles continue. Just recently, the JCRC helped raise awareness of the ongoing slaughter in the Darfur region of Sudan. Ever the activist, Semel was at the rally held in downtown San Francisco.

But most of the time, the organization prefers the low-key approach. “JCRC operates on the principle that the best crisis is one that never becomes a crisis,” says Kahn. “We operate on the lowest level of intervention necessary.”

It seems to have worked. One of Raab’s favorite stories dates from the time of the first intifada in Israel, in the late ’80s. The local Bay Area Arab community felt threatened at the time and put out a call for help. The JCRC responded, extending its hand in friendship. Later, a local Arab community leader spoke out. Recalls Raab, “He said, ‘The only ones who paid attention to us were the Jews.'”

The JCRC’s 60th anniversary event is set for 5:30-8 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 26, at the JCCSF, 3200 California St. Tickets: $100. Information: (415) 957-1551.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.