They brought songbooks, prayerbooks, sleeping bags and Shabbat dinner. But this was no sleepover party.
The university students who entered the San Francisco Jewish Welfare Federation offices on April 30, 1971, also brought a list of demands, calling on the Federation to prioritize support and funding for Jewish education. Most urgently, two local day schools, Hebrew Academy and Brandeis, were struggling.
The group of about 40 called themselves the Jewish Education Coalition, but “that was a front organization” for the Radical Jewish Union, said David Biale, a UC Davis professor of Jewish history who was then a 22-year-old senior at UC Berkeley.
Biale was among the activists who plotted and carried out the subversive yet peaceful event, which lasted from 11:30 a.m. on Friday until 9 p.m. on Saturday. “Jews Liberate Federation” beamed a headline in the Jewish Radical, the RJU’s newspaper from 1969 to 1979.
To commemorate the 50-year-anniversary of the sit-in, a virtual symposium has been planned for May 2. It’s being hosted by HaMaqom | The Place and J., and co-hosted by an additional nine Bay Area Jewish education-centric institutions.
The list of speakers includes several former RJU members — many of whom went on to hold distinguished positions in academia and major Jewish institutions — as well as Jewish community professionals and educators. They will discuss developments in the world of Jewish education over the past 50 years in the Bay Area, nationally and in Israel, and look at future trends.
Kicking off the discussion will be Shelly Schreter, who was 22 in the spring of 1971 and in his second year at UC Berkeley when he joined the protest. He made aliyah five years later and served for a while as director of the World Union of Jewish Students Institute in Arad, Israel.
In a recent email, Schreter wrote that the Federation and its leadership were “in our perception … a classic example of the assimilated Jewish establishment which participated eagerly in maintaining the American status quo, with its comfortable and acceptably low-key Jewish sub-group. This expressed itself, among other things, in their refusal to extend budgetary support to a struggling Jewish day school [Hebrew Academy] in the city.”
Though the activists wanted action, “we had decided in advance to play it very cool, and not resort to inflammatory rhetoric of any kind,” Schreter wrote.
Logistics were crucial. “We organized like a military operation,” Biale pointed out with a chuckle. Among his tasks after they had entered the Federation offices: “Distracting the receptionist,” he said. “We engaged her in idle conversation and joking around while the others slipped in behind us.”
The first instinct of Federation officials was to call the police, Biale said, but cooler heads prevailed and “they backed off.” Top leaders, including Federation president Melvin Swig, were called in.
“We had a debate with them: What did it mean to be Jewish? It was a quite fascinating moment,” said Biale, who earlier in his career was director of the Graduate Theological Union’s Center for Jewish Studies in Berkeley.
Serious discussions ensued, including issues concerning Israel, added Biale, who described himself and other RJU members as Zionists and part of the “New Left.”
The media-savvy activists drew local TV and newspaper coverage, and “during the event the word got out and several rabbis came and visited us and expressed their solidarity,” Biale recalled. Among them was Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, a leader in the Conservative movement.
“He happened to be in town, had heard of our initiative … and felt he wanted to celebrate Shabbat with us,” Schreter recalled of Kelman’s visit. “He was clearly signaling to us that there was a part of that so-called ‘Jewish Establishment’ which not only did not oppose our actions, but wholeheartedly validated and supported them.”
Former RJU member Fred Rosenbaum said the sit-in helped propel “a sea change in Bay Area Jewish life.” Those days, in 1971, marked “the last days of the ‘old guard’ German Jewish leadership,” Rosenbaum said. It was a power structure that “was afraid that if there were Jewish day schools, it would ghettoize the Jewish community.”
That thinking changed dramatically. After Rabbi Brian Lurie took the helm of the S.F.-based Jewish Welfare Federation in 1974 (several years before it changed its name to the Jewish Community Federation), the organization not only funded Jewish education, but opened an office in Israel — “the first federation in the country to do that,” said Rosenbaum, a historian who has written extensively about the San Francisco Jewish community.
The sit-in reflected “part of a larger change, a general change, but also there was a demographic change” in San Francisco Jewry that began several decades earlier with the influx of Eastern European Jews and their offspring.
Rosenbaum, who in 1974 founded Berkeley-based Lehrhaus Judaica (now HaMaqom) and now lives in New York, was a second-year grad student in modern European history in the spring of 1971.
“There was a wonderful sense of camaraderie among this group,” he said. “They were looking for meaning in Jewish life, that’s what they were really seeking. … It was through them that I truly entered Jewish life.”