The Raoul Wallenberg Jewish Democratic Club, a venerable institution in San Francisco that had all but vanished from the political scene in recent years, is back with a team of old and new members determined to breathe some political life back into the organization.
“The hope is to be able to attract some new leaders, people who maybe have that bug — the political bug,” said political consultant Gia Daniller-Katz, a longtime member and past president.
The club was set up 30 years ago to organize, unify and empower the city’s Jewish Democrats. That basic mission hasn’t changed, but now the club is looking to reach a new generation.
“It’s not your father’s Democratic club,” joked Martin Rawlings-Fein.
Once a powerhouse club with 500 members and a board of directors, it hosted debates, interviewed candidates and made endorsements, helping to influence local policy. But over the last few years, the club — which also held social events, such as a political comedy Hanukkah party — had become largely inactive. Daniller-Katz, who joined in the 1990s, said because it was an all-volunteer group, it lost steam and momentum.
“As often is the case in these situations, things wax and wane,” she said.
The Raoul Wallenberg Jewish Democratic Club was founded in 1983 by veteran political activist John Rothmann. Shortly after launching, the club worked with the LGBT community and then-Supervisor Angela Alioto to co-sponsor an anti-hate crime law. It also was active on issues related to Israel, including fighting anti-Israel resolutions in San Francisco and Berkeley. In more recent years, the club took part in a campaign to press Rainbow Grocery to stop its boycott of Israeli goods.
It also has been a platform for future political leaders, including former state Sen. Mark Leno, San Francisco Democratic Party chair Leslie Katz and former Community College Board members Natalie Berg and the late Milton Marks III.
The handful of people who are kickstarting the club back into action today are looking to provide a central address for Jewish Democrats to discuss local, statewide and national issues, formulate club positions and do political advocacy to make sure city leaders are informed about Jewish positions.
“There is very much a need to bring the local Jewish voice to Democratic politics,” Daniller-Katz said.
There are over 30 Democratic chartered clubs in the city, from the Latino Democratic Club to the Democratic Women in Action, but Wallenberg is the only one that represents San Francisco Jewish Democrats.
That’s what drew in Daniller-Katz. Someone who definitely has that “political bug,” she worked on campaigns for the California Democratic Party and Sen. Barbara Boxer. Upon moving to San Francisco, she wanted to find a place where her Jewish identity and her political identity meshed.
That same convergence is what attracted Rawlings-Fein to join. Though he’s been involved for only a few months, he’s already signed on to help revitalize the club (he is also involved in the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club).
“It’s about being part of a Democratic group, and also keeping your Jewish hat on — still with your kippah on!” he said with a laugh. “I was really excited that it was a big-tent group.”
Committed to a slow but steady revival, the members are moving ahead with quarterly club events, although because of the Covid-19 pandemic only one has been held so far: a February Democratic debate watch party held in partnership with Mission District café Manny’s, followed by a club-sponsored panel discussion. A virtual event is in the works for May, Daniller-Katz said.
Club activities will ramp up as the November election gets closer, including phone-banking for the eventual Democratic nominee. People interested in getting involved can find the club on Facebook and at wallenbergdems.org. The only requirement is to be a registered Democrat living in San Francisco.
“This is the right time to bring it back — with a vengeance!” Rawlings-Fein said.