A labor of love: S.F. woman who built AIPAC regional offices retires at 80

Since they were born on the same day, Naomi Lauter and her friend, Roselyne “Cissie” Swig, celebrate their birthday every year by heading to a Bay Area flower garden.

Their agenda: Stop and smell the roses.

After decades of working tirelessly on behalf of Israel — most notably as longtime regional director of AIPAC —  Lauter, 80, has more than earned some leisure time. In fact, she retired from her post late last year.

Make that, “technically” retired. She remains a consultant with the Israel lobby, and she will tour Israel later this year with AIPAC regional directors.

When it comes to the organization she helped build from the ground up, Lauter has no desire to pack it in.

“She was the mother of it all,” Swig says of how Lauter created a national structure for AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “She always emphasized the importance of the Jewish community understanding the necessity of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. She has stayed her course.”

“I was always mostly focused on the kids,” Lauter says with customary modesty. “But from the beginning I was always involved in something. I’ve always been a  good organizer.”

With the announcement of her retirement, Lauter’s friends, colleagues and family — she has four grown children, 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild — have been praising the woman who shunned the spotlight and preferred to work behind the scenes through the power of one-on-one relationships.

Naomi Lauter with Rep. Nancy Pelosi and then-Sen. Barack Obama at the 2008 AIPAC Policy Conference. photo/courtesy of aipac

Those friends include people in high places.

Such as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. For years, the Pelosi and Lauter families lived across the street from each other in San Francisco’s Presidio Terrace neighborhood, where the two moms formed a lasting bond.

“We were both very child-oriented,” Lauter says of Pelosi. “We would sit on the steps on the sunny side of the street and watch our kids play.”

“Few people are more passionate, committed or dedicated to U.S.-Israel relations than Naomi Lauter,” Pelosi says. “She is one of the most effective advocates in the country, and someone who fights for the values, ideals and issues she holds most dear.”

Pelosi would know. In addition to being a neighbor, she was Lauter’s representative in Congress, and once Lauter became regional director of AIPAC’s San Francisco office she kept up the pro-Israel pressure.

Dividing AIPAC into regions (there are nine regions across the country) is Lauter’s doing. She not only pioneered the regional structure, but invented the AIPAC dinner — held in capacious banquet halls, often with a United States senator as keynote speaker.

Lauter also trained generations of AIPAC volunteers to do the day-to-day work that makes the organization hum.

“[Naomi’s] passion for her cause never diminishes,” says Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s executive director. “You can see her impact across three generations of activists. She trained her contemporaries, those the age of her children, and now contemporaries of her grandchildren. It’s a stunning thing.”

Lauter’s passion did not spring from nowhere. She attributes it to her parents, Louis and Rose Ets-Hokin, who bequeathed to her a nose for politics, an eye for detail and a heart for Zionism.

Naomi Ets-Hokin was born and raised in San Francisco. Her father headed a successful electrical engineering firm and sat on numerous Jewish communal boards. Her Hungarian-born mother devoted countless hours to Hadassah and other Zionist organizations.

There were ardent nightly discussions at the kitchen table, a tradition Lauter carried on in her own home. “There was never a night we didn’t go to the Encyclopedia Britannica,” she recalls.

While a student at Lowell High School in San Francisco she met Robert Lauter on a blind date. Before long she joined him at U.C. Berkeley. The two eventually wed, and today have been married for 59 years.

Naomi Lauter plunged into activism while still shepherding her kids —  David, Jonathan, Sarah and Sam — to and from school. In addition to her Jewish community activities, she became involved with the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, volunteering with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and later working to desegregate San Francisco schools.

In those days, the Lauter home was a safe house for liberal activism. Civil rights leaders such as Fannie Lou Hamer and James Forman were house guests. Famed community organizer Saul Alinsky mentored Lauter, teaching her the finer points of saving the world.

The couple’s youngest son fits the apple-not-falling-far-from-the-tree model. Sam Lauter is a respected San Francisco political consultant and Jewish community volunteer, but his apprenticeship began at the family dinner table.

“I didn’t know anything else,” he says of growing up in a political household with different — and often high-profile — guests over for dinner. He jokes that the only question he and his siblings had on any given night was whether the guest of honor would represent the Jews, the Democrats or the civil rights movement.

While her kids were young, Lauter earned a master’s degree in educational psychology from San Francisco State University. But she began feeling “Jewish-deprived” (as she puts it), so she went to work at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council under Earl Raab, serving as educational director as well as helping to organize community services for the area’s Holocaust survivors.

She served with JCRC for 10 years, and was finally lured away by AIPAC. Since the 1950s, she had known Isaiah “Si” Kenan, the founder of the Israel lobby. He formed the organization in that decade and built it into an effective Washington, D.C.-based organization. When it was time to go national in 1983, then-executive director Tom Dine knew Naomi Lauter was the person to call on.

“There’s a reason why they opened the first regional office in San Francisco,” Sam Lauter says. “Because my mom was here. She’s the one who opened the door to how AIPAC was going to reach out to members outside of D.C. They realized they couldn’t just be a D.C. organization.”

Despite being a lifelong Zionist, Lauter did not make it to Israel until 1971. The motivation for the trip wasn’t simply a desire to walk the stone pathways of the Old City. It had more to do with her son’s impending confirmation class trip.

“I said to Bob, ‘No kid of mine is getting to Israel before I am,’ ” Lauter says with a laugh. “It was a family trip. I was in the midst of integrating the schools, and I remember sitting on a beach up north and thinking, ‘Why don’t I just stay? It’s so peaceful.’ ”

Since then, Lauter has traveled to Israel nearly three dozen times.

Over the years, she has seen AIPAC become a whipping boy for anti-Israel sentiment. The organization has often been characterized as right wing and in step with Israel’s hawks. Lauter, a bluer-than-blue liberal Democrat, proves that sentiment wrong. She says she is proud of AIPAC’s bipartisan nature, and boasts about how AIPAC has staffers from across the partisan spectrum.

Over the last 10 years of her tenure with AIPAC, Lauter crisscrossed the United States, from Texas cattle country to Brooklyn, N.Y., meeting with and training an army of volunteers. She says it was pure pleasure to go around the country and meet people “who love Israel the way I do.”

Now, her son Sam chairs the Northern California chapter of AIPAC. And with Israel facing increasingly strident criticism across the globe, she feels AIPAC plays a more crucial role than ever.

“It’s a very scary time,” Naomi Lauter says. “Many people in the world are trying to discount Israel. This whole Goldstone Report, which says Israel doesn’t have a right to defend itself, is very frightening. One of the things I’m proudest of at AIPAC is that we drew attention to Iran.”

As she steps away from a leadership role, Lauter realizes that younger generations will now pick up the fight for Israel. But her close friends and family feel Naomi Lauter will be tough to replace.

“She’s not cut from a common cloth,” Sam Lauter says. “I’ve not met anyone with her mixture of abilities and personality. The two drivers have been her sense of justice and her connection to our people. She was motivated by trying to make the world a better place.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.