Congregants and guests crowd into Congregation Sherith Israel’s sanctuary in 1945 to celebrate the founding of the United Nations. (Photo/Courtesy Sherith Israel)
Congregants and guests crowd into Congregation Sherith Israel’s sanctuary in 1945 to celebrate the founding of the United Nations. (Photo/Courtesy Sherith Israel)

Events to salute Jewish role in U.N.’s birth in San Francisco 75 years ago

The U.N. headquarters along Manhattan’s East River is one of the world’s most iconic buildings. But the United Nations wasn’t founded in New York. It was chartered in the City by the Bay.

To mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the U.N. in San Francisco, the local chapter of the American Jewish Committee is sponsoring a webinar and virtual ceremony this week. And why not? It’s the S.F. chapter’s 75th anniversary, as well.

A focus of the commemoration is AJC’s critical role in enshrining universal human rights as a key feature of the U.N. charter in 1945.

Though the U.N. “has not lived up to its ideals in terms of its realization of human rights,” said Rabbi Serena Eisenberg, AJC’s Northern California director, it was the “Jewish community, emerging out of the shadow of the Holocaust, [that] felt it was [very] important to have human rights as a central feature.” In fact, the lobbying efforts by AJC representatives and local Jews at that time inspired the founding of an AJC chapter in San Francisco.

The celebration will include two marquee events.

On Friday, June 26, a webinar featuring two former U.S. ambassadors to the U.N., John Negroponte and David Pressman, will address how the U.N. has — and can — advance U.S. national interests and protect human rights. “The U.N. at 75: What Place in U.S. Foreign Policy?” will start at 10 a.m. and is free with registration.

The session will be moderated by Felice Gaer, director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights.

On Saturday, June 27, a virtual interfaith commemoration is being sponsored by AJC, Grace Cathedral, the San Francisco Interfaith Council and others. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is scheduled to talk, and Eisenberg will be on a panel about the role of faith-based and interfaith organizations in carrying out the work of the U.N.

The 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. event is free with registration.

At its best, the U.N. allows for conversations among nations that promote peace.

A newly composed Shabbat prayer in honor of the U.N. anniversary will be read by Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman-Graf of Congregation Sherith Israel of San Francisco. Her synagogue’s sanctuary was the site of a 1945 commemoration honoring the founding of the U.N., and a photo from that day hangs on a synagogue wall.

“It’s quite extraordinary,” Zimmerman-Graf noted. “One has to ask what was it that brought so many Jews together? I’ve always known that Sherith Israel was a central address for civic life beyond the Jewish community.”

As delegates and consulting organizations, including the NAACP, gathered in the spring of 1945 at the War Memorial Opera House to hammer out the charter, Jewish representatives argued for inclusion of human rights as a key plank. But there was resistance from the USSR, Britain and even from some in the U.S. government.

Judge Joseph Proskauer and the aforementioned Jacob Blaustein were the AJC representatives, sent by President Franklin Roosevelt to the S.F. conclave mere weeks before his death in April 1945 — “a lech lecha moment,” said Eisenberg, alluding to God’s commandment to Abraham to go forth to find a new land.

With time running out, AJC representatives made an impassioned plea to the U.S. delegation about protecting human rights and forming a U.N. Human Rights Commission. It worked. The U.S. persuaded the drafters to include human rights language, and the charter was signed on June 16 at the Herbst Theatre.

“That’s what AJC does,” Eisenberg said. “It advocates for the welfare of Jewish community and the welfare of all, and does so with access at the highest levels.”

Fast-forward 75 years, and many Jews, Israelis and supporters of Israel believe the U.N. has fallen far short of its ambitious goals, often blaming Israel for ills real and imagined. Neither Eisenberg nor Graf countenance the body for its Israel-bashing, but the ideals on which the U.N. was founded still resonate.

“At its best, the U.N. allows for conversations among nations that promote peace,” Graf said. “At its most, it has the potential to play an important role in communication and world diplomacy, leading to peace. So that a World War II never occurs again.”

Dan Pine

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