Jewish brothers make U.C. student presidency a family tradition

When Jesse Gabriel was cleaning out his office after serving a year as U.C. Berkeley’s student body president, he paused at the dresser.

Though he paid for that dresser with his own hard-earned cash, he decided to leave it. After all, his younger brother Oren might need it.

“I left it for the future presidents, but a tiny part of me was hoping he would use it,” admitted the elder Gabriel, 24. Not that his little bro would ever pick that dresser out. “He has much better taste than me.”

(If you’re wondering why Jesse would keep a dresser in the office, sometimes it’s nice to have a change of clothes available after a student senate meeting breaks up at 3 a.m.)

Four years after Jesse’s term as president of the Associated Students of the University of California, Oren Gabriel will indeed have his chance to pull a new shirt out of the dresser after a marathon meeting. Like his brother, Oren rose to the top of the Student Action party and won the ASUC presidency.

If you’re wondering who’s buying the blue and gold ties out of the alumni catalog, it’s families like the Gabriels. Oren and Jesse (now entering his second year at Harvard Law School) are third-generation Bears: Both of their grandfathers attended, and maternal grandpa Fred Katzburg was president of Berkeley Hillel and went on to found Temple Isaiah in Lafayette. Their parents, Stuart Gabriel and Judith Katzburg, went there and met during a junior year abroad in Israel — so, in a way, you could say the Gabriel brothers owe everything to Cal.

Already an experienced political hand at 21, Oren expertly notes his strong Jewish ties while emphasizing that he represents all U.C. Berkeley students. Still, he can’t hide that he got his start as a student senator with the hopes of representing the “Hillel community.”

When Hillel stood to lose around $8,000 because of a minor error on its budget proposal, Oren was there to smooth things out. When a bill supporting U.C. divestment from Israel was floating around the senate, he and fellow Jewish senator Evan Bloom managed to have it withdrawn.

On the other hand, Oren, who worked this summer at the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay, notes that he had no problem cooperating with a member of the Students for Justice in Palestine to push for an increase in the wages of Cal dining hall employees.

The Gabriel brothers, who hail from Oak Park near Los Angeles, talk on the phone almost every day, and Jesse obviously had high hopes for his younger brother’s student political career. But at the same time, he didn’t want to smother Oren with unsolicited advice.

“I tried not to push him into any decisions. He wasn’t 100 percent sure he wanted to run for president and I tried to communicate to him that it was a fantastic opportunity and one that led to a lot of personal growth for me and great opportunities to do things for students and the Jewish community at Berkeley,” said Jesse.

“Eventually, I told him ‘Don’t run because I did. But don’t not run because I did.'”

Evidently Oren took that advice. Or maybe he didn’t. Either way, he handily won the presidency.

The younger Gabriel wants to improve alumni networking and develop more student facilities on Lower Sproul Plaza (a long-term goal that could stretch to the Oren Gabriel Jr. presidency).

“I don’t want to sound conceited, but the expectations are high. Four other executives and 12 members of the senate [out of 20] are from the same party. We’ll work together and form a cohesive and effective government,” said Oren.

And his brother has high expectations too.

“With no false modesty, I think he’ll be a better president than I was,” Jesse said. “He’s a really special guy and has a tremendous gift for interacting with people. You’d be very hard-pressed to find someone at Berkeley who doesn’t respect him.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a columnist at Mission Local. He is also former editor-at-large at San Francisco Magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.