Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the category “Foundation San Francisco Hillel”

Open Letter to Hillel Students and Alumni

Dear Students & Alumni,

As you have probably heard by now, I have left my position as executive director of San Francisco Hillel. After nine amazing and challenging years, I am moving on to new challenges, heading the Western Region of the American Jewish World Service, an organization that, inspired by Jewish commitment to social justice, works to realize human rights and end poverty in the developing world.

I want to take the opportunity to share a few thoughts. For many of you, I was a familiar face at Hillel, working behind the scenes to raise the funds necessary to run the organization, and often dealing with managerial issues and politics, whether on campus or in the Bay Area Jewish community.

For some, I had the honor to lead you on birthright trips, alternative breaks, and to conferences such as AIPAC Regional and Policy Conference. These were the times when I had an opportunity to cultivate a deep relationship with many of you, one that stretched over several formative years for each of us.

I treasure the conversations we had as we grappled with our Jewish journeys, our relationship to Israel, and our shared desire to strive for a more just world for all. You helped me form and change my opinions, and create a personal values-based platform with which to lead my life. I thank you for this and hope that I was there to help you grow as well.


For many we bantered about the Warriors .v. Lakers/Clippers, or my beloved Arsenal (English soccer team), and I hope I enriched your language levels with my British English.

For others, I was that crazy bloke who rapped his speech at the Final Shabbat dinner, the guy who joined conversations about politics, campus life, relationships, or whatever you wanted to share around the coffee machine. I truly treasured those moments and will hold them forever in my heart.


I wish you the best as you continue along your chosen life path. Last month I turned fifty, and want to share that we never stop exploring our values, beliefs and life dreams. I hope you grow, seeing Hillel as a positive and integral part of your life. I hope you will continue to explore your connection to Judaism and the Jewish people, to the State of Israel, and to strive to create a more just society in the US and the world.

If you are still a student, please continue to take advantage of the opportunities that Hillel provides, to help create a vibrant Jewish campus community, to stand up for Israel, and enjoy the alternative breaks, conferences, and birthright, with the wonderful staff that continue to work at Hillel.

If you are an alum/na, I hope you find your place in the Jewish community and continue to be an activist in whatever cause/s resonate with you. I hope you can take the values you honed at Hillel and integrate them into your own life. Please join and support the alumni network so that those who come after you will be able to enjoy the same benefits that you had. No one appreciates the value of a Hillel more than alumni. Become a mentor for a current student, help them to negotiate college life and prepare for graduation. Stay involved, even if it is only a $5 monthly gift, it is important.


I want to thank the wonderful staff that made my time at Hillel so special. In particular, Rachel, Shushannah, Sima, Charlotte, Heather, and Yochai, all of whom helped make Hillel a family, not a place of work. Please welcome Ollie, my replacement (also a Brit, sorry!), and Omer, the amazing new Israel Fellow, and help them grasp the complexities and the vision we share for Jewish campus life.

Finally, thank you for being such an exciting part of my life. Please feel free to stay in touch via email (alshalev@yahoo.com) or look for me on Facebook and Twitter. I am sure our paths will cross again.

Good luck in all you pursue for a happy and meaningful life.

L’shalom (to peace),


Masada 2014


Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, and three more Wycaan Master books. Shalev is also the author of three social justice-themed novels including Unwanted Heroes. He swears there is a connection. More at http://www.alonshalev.com.


A Year of Peace

Tonight Jews all over the world will come together to welcome in our new year – Rosh Hashanah. It is a sweet occasion and we eat apples and honey to celebrate. But Rosh Hashanah is also the start of 10 days of introspection that culminate in Yom Kippur, a day of fasting and supplication that climaxes with the final blow of the Shofar, the ram’s horn, that signifies the closing of the gates of Heaven.

Zelig Golden of Wilderness Torah

Zelig Golden of Wilderness Torah

There are three levels of sins and forgiveness: the sins against G-d, those against our fellow humans, and those against the world.

Heavy stuff, but it is a great time for some soul-searching and an opportunity to mend bridges with people we care about. But what I love about this period is that, no matter how badly you have sinned against G-d, if you are genuine in your repentance, then you get a clean slate to start the new year.

However, you cannot ask G-d’s forgiveness for sins against your fellow men and women. Only the person you have wronged can forgive you and you need to approach them with a genuine desire to confess and be forgiven – tweets don’t count.


Finally, a person cannot find peace with G-d unless it is found with our fellow humans, and peace cannot be attained within, unless there is peace in the world. There is something very humbling and holistic here. Above all, it is something very powerful.

There is so much to learn from this period of time. But it is also a time to simply celebrate life and our relationship with one another. Michelle Citrin, a great singer, sums it up in her song: Gotta Love Rosh Hashanah

Wishing all my Jewish friends a Shana Tova, and to everyone a year of health, happiness and peace.


Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, Wycaan Master Book 1 and The First Decree, both released by Tourmaline Books. Ashbar – Book 3 – is due for release in October 2013. Shalev is also the author of three social justice-themed novels including Unwanted Heroes. He swears there is a connection. More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

Millennials – Another Point-of-View

I wrote a post on Friday about how I see the millennials and paid tribute to their parents. A few people have taken issue with me and claim that I wrote a very one-sided article. Probably true. So today I wish to focus on the other side of the coin. Ironically, the Pew report that I referenced on Friday, has something to substantiate this perspective.

Millennials claim that what sets them apart from previous generations is their relationship with technology. I think they mean that they are better connected to their family and friends, more in touch with cultural changes, and genuinely believe that technology unites rather than isolates people. I do not think we should read anything into the fact that 83% of millennials sleep with their cell phones. I know what you’re thinking!

Social historian Neil Howe disagrees. He sees millennials as sheltered by helicopter parents who wouldn’t even let them go unattended to the park to play. With their parents always there, picking them up from school, driving them to play dates and soccer practice, there should be little reason to wonder why the millennial has sought to leverage technology to build community.

While their parents fought for individual rights and boundaries, the millennial seeks community and acceptance. In many respects, they are more conventional with regard to social mores. “Asked about their life goals, 52% say being a good parent is most important to them, followed by having a successful marriage; 59% think that the trend of more single women having children is bad for society.”

The study also shows that they tend to see the trend of unmarried couples living together as not the optimum solution. Their desire for inclusiveness is well illustrated in that, though they support the institution of marriage, they believe that gay and interracial couple should share the marital experience.

One final point touches my work at the San Francisco Hillel Jewish Student Center. There is a general perception that the millennials are not interested in religion, or as one individual told me: “the millennials religion is themselves.” But what the study shows is that the young generation sees itself as spiritual and do pray. What it reveals is that the millennials are not attracted to institutional religion.

I think we can take great hope out of this study. This generation might not be turning out the way the older members of the community are (but then who ever did?), but this is a generation seeking experiences that are meaningful to them and they want to do this as part of a community.

Students are looking for community

Above all, the millennials are incredibly optimistic. This study has left me feeling optimistic too.


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

Millennials – We are missing the point

The Pew Research Center has recently released a study comparing about the millennials. Since I work with college students I am particularly interested, though not surprised at the results.

Forty years ago, as the college campuses erupted in protests to the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia, students held sit-ins, threw stones at police and when the National Guard opened fire at Kent State, killing four students, and the entire college system was galvanized and ground to a halt.

It is hard to imagine anything galvanizing students today and the Pew study highlights how this generation, instead of rebelling against their parents actually embrace their values. An earlier study asked the students to list their three heroes. Most included at least one of their parents.

Forty years ago, 74% of students responded to a Gallup poll agreeing that their parents’ generation was corrupt and that they felt alienated from their values. Today’s college students are Facebook friends with their parents and text them on average 10x a week. They shop together because they wear the same clothes, listen to the same music, and the millennials credit their parents as having superior values to their own generation.

Parents and children still tied together virtually

This, and similar studies, has led to considerable criticism of the millennials: that they lack values and motivation, that they embrace an air of entitlement, that they are more concerned with the latest cell phone than the headlines of a newspaper.

There are two mistakes here. Firstly, if we are going to compare between the two generations, we would have to admit that this generation has better education, opinions that are more diverse and have an inherent belief in the system. But it is the advancement of technology and social media that is shaping this generation and it is making comparisons with past generations almost impossible.

But there is a second point that we are missing. While it is easy to berate the millennials while idealizing their parents’ radicalization at their age, we forget to give credit to this generation’s parents. These are the people who, through honest and committed parenting, have engendered the close bonds with their children. By listening to their music and watching their TV programs, this generation of parents are informed about their children as no other generation ever was.

These parents are deeply committed to being a part of their children’s’ lives without offering value judgments that would push their children away. By embracing their children and joining them on their own turf (Facebook, Twitter, texting), they are engendering a sense of intergenerational acceptance that is unique and deserves credit.

Perhaps it was something that evolved during those college protests forty years ago, but today we are so focused on the millennials, we forget that their parents are still out there holding their values up for the whole world to see.

When I meet the parents of my students and see their mutual love,  commitment and comfort, it inspires me to be a better parent to my children because I see the bond between them as a cause worth fighting for. 


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

The Power of Story

I have just finished attending the annual professional conference for Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, the organization for whom I work in San Francisco.

The theme of the conference was Collecting & Connecting Stories and I was honored to be one of the facilitators for the 5-workshop seminar that unfolded throughout the conference.

Marshall Ganz - his own story is a powerful lesson

The workshops began by focusing on why we tell stories, focusing on the work of Marshall Ganz. While there was the obvious and sometimes surreal fusion of my life as a ‘Jewish professional’ and as a social activist writer, I was just as struck by how much you learn from a person when you listen, really listen, to their story, including the spaces between the words.

I remember a writing coach saying that the reader not only learns from the words on the page, but from the white spaces (what we don’t say). For example, when someone tells you a story about their children, they are telling you how important their family is in their lives. They are sharing their values and priorities.

We learned how when you share a personal story with someone you are making a commitment towards friendship as you share a piece of yourself and you are honoring them by offering a level of exposure. Likewise when people share their story with us, they are inviting us to get to know them on a deeper level.

In a conversation with a colleague at the conference I explained that I write novels that highlight social injustices and promote individual empowerment to create change,  and she tied this into a model of how I envision my work in the San Francisco Hillel Jewish Student Center.

My biggest takeaway from these workshops was the realization that to compartmentalize stories within the pages of a book is only one facet of storytelling. We use our personal stories to reach out to others and offer an insight into our character, a lesson from the moral of our stories, and the opportunity to bear witness to the stories of others, validating their experiences and values. Stories are all around us. They form an integral part of the fabric of social interaction.

Stories are all about delivery, but they are also about listening. How much better can we make our world if we can find the comfortable space to tell our stories and learn to truly listen and learn from those of others.


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

A Man Who Won’t Give Up

Every year since Hurricane Katrina I have taken students to New Orleans to help rebuild the community smashed by a natural disaster, exacerbated by human negligence, and compounded by government disorganization (you can just tell that this is an objective post!). I have blogged about this a few times, but since returning this year, I have not done so.

This January, I met an amazing man. Ward “Mack” McLendon lost his house and his antique cars that he renovated in the Lower Ninth Ward. While he fought to keep his property in an outrageous bureaucratic battle (Mac has still not moved back into his house), Mac put a down payment in 2006 on a hangar-like building on Charbonnet Street. His plan was to have a place to revive his hobby with the antique cars. But Mac soon had another vision, one that involved using the building to bring the community together.

Mac addressing SF Hillel students outside the center 01/11

“When I got the keys in my hand and stepped inside the building, I started thinking about a community center that I came up in (in the Upper 9th Ward). A little voice came to me and said, ‘You didn’t lose your life, you didn’t lose your immediate family, you lost things. You can replace things.’ That was the beginning of me finding my purpose.” Source

When our SF Hillel student group arrived, there were beautiful murals around the building, but the main area was full of junk and garbage, Mac had no problem motivating us to empty the area, filling our ears with his dream of a summer camp so that children will find protection from the rough street environment. In a day and a half, we had emptied the hanger, and helped shlap planks to a group of volunteer carpenters.  While we were ready to congratulate us, Mac sent us out to the neighborhood. “Knock on doors and ask what people need,” he said. “We gotta help everyone.”

One of the inspiring murals.

Today, Mac’s building is a community center called The Lower 9th Ward Village. Neighbors are invited to use the computers, children have a nurturing environment to do homework and a safe space in a tough neighborhood.  There are plans for a recording studio as many young people are imbued with the music culture of the Crescent City. There is also a lending library, basketball hoops and now a stage.

Courtney Miller and Erin Pellebon, who live next door to each other in a shotgun double across the street, said their kids throw their backpacks on the porch when they get home from school and run to the center to play basketball and get help with their homework. “There’s nothing really around here for the children to do,” Pellebon said. “I really appreciate those volunteers.” Source

When Mac talks about his vision, he is simply inspiring. You truly feel in the presence of a spiritual man. When he started the Lower 9th Ward Village, “the most beautiful light in the world popped on,” he said. “It never felt like a job. It can’t be a job, because I don’t get a paycheck.” He believes most people die without ever finding their purpose in life. “I guarantee you, if you find a purpose, it will be serving people some kind of way,” he said. Source

Every day when we finished our work, Mac has us sit together and ‘invites’ everyone to share a reflection. You can’t refuse Mac, and even the shyest find their tongues. Mac says: “This place is like magic.” Source

That is because this is a man who is passionate, humble, appreciative and willing to dream in the face of adversary. He is the epitome of why people lie myself can’t help but return year after year.  When New Orleans gets under your skin, it is not just the beauty or the music, it is the magical people like Mac.

In August/September 2005 we failed the people of New Orleans. They are rebuilding their community. We cannot fail them again. America will be forever stained until New Orleans is rebuilt, until people like Mac have their houses back and until their communities are again thriving.

Please consider joining me in giving a small gift to help the completion of the community center and the summer camps. You can donate by clicking here.

The Community Center logo


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

Back to New Orleans

I arrived in the US five-and-a-half years ago, just 103 days before Hurricane Katrina struck landfall. I left my family in the beautiful manicured suburbia of Ventura, California, and rode the greyhound north to seek my fame and fortune, I had 100 days to find a job that would support a family of four in the expensive Bay Area, and then find a house for us to live in.

I’m still waiting for the fame, but fortune shone on me that summer. While my job will never make me rich financially, it feeds my family and my soul. I have the good fortune to work with Jewish college students, helping them find their individual path in the world and enriching their Jewish campus experience.

Fortune did not shine on others during the summer of 2005, and as  I settled my family into our little apartment in Berkeley, we watched in horror as New Orleans was destroyed. “Where is this happening? Is this Africa? India?” my then 6-year-old son asked. “America,” I replied. He looked at me wide-eyed. “Our America?”

His America had so far been the beach, beautiful parks and elegantly manicured lawns. “Yes,” I replied and reached for a map to show him.

Another scene – this time of the New Orleans Superdome packed with people. “Daddy, why are they all black?” my son had asked. “Why aren’t we doing anything about it?” He asked. “Why aren’t we helping?”

I silently promised him and myself then that we would do something about it.

Why aren’t we doing anything about it? Those words haunted me as I began my new job as a Hillel director working on the San Francisco campuses.

There is nothing in my job working with Jewish students that gives me more satisfaction than recruiting students and taking them to New Orleans to volunteer to help rebuild the city and the community. We not only help physically, but we show we care and that we have not forgotten.

Most importantly perhaps, we bear witness. And maybe, seeds are sown in these students not to accept social apathy and irresponsibility. Social Justice is a central tenant of Judaism – I want my students to experience the responsibility.

Today, I will take another group across country to give a week of their winter break to help the crescent city. Over the next week, I  want to share some of the experiences of our group, of groups I have taken in past years, and of the people we meet. In truth, I am going to prepost blogs in case there is no time as this week can get so intense.

A couple of years ago when I went to pick up my son from school after just having returned from such a trip, the teacher stopped me. “He has been telling us all week of the work you do on the Gulf Coast. He is very proud of what you do.”

I thought back to August/September 2005 and the promise I had made to both of us. Five years have passed, but the struggle of New Orleans goes on, and it is the struggle of American society. I don’t want the next generation – the millennials – to make the same mistakes that we made. Or my sons, if I can help it. Maybe by being a role model we can change the world one person at a time.


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com


True Mentor – Irwin Bear

This weekend, Irwin Bear passed away after a long struggle with cancer. He leaves behind a life full of success in his business, his wonderful family, and also a legacy to those whom he mentored.

Irwin was President of San Francisco Hillel from 2006-2009. He stepped into the position when our Hillel was facing many challenges. In his time he was a relentless advocate for the students of San Francisco. He was never afraid to highlight our needs and our achievements and never afraid to push the board and staff along.

Most of all, Irwin was a personal mentor to me. We met frequently and, while he pushed me to move the organization along, he was always a teacher.

Irwin was a proud alum of San Francisco State University and he enjoyed telling students of his experiences and his life story. He never spoke down to them, but sought to inspire through his own example. He often attended events and was a beloved figure in the Jewish student community.

Wishing his wife, Ann, and his family a long and healthy life. Judaism teaches that a man is measured by the good he leaves behind him. Irwin left a lot of good, and his personal example is the greatest lesson of all.

Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com


Mikey Pauker – Sim Shalom

Mikey was a student at SFSU a few years back and very involved at our Hillel Student Center.

Today, down in SoCal, he is more widely known as a folk singer. His first two albums are firm favorites in my iTunes. He now has a third album out that is reconnecting to his Jewish roots. The album Sim Shalom has some excellent songs on it. Compass is a solid opener and the title song, Sim Shalom – Make Peace – seems so relevant today as Israel and the Palestinians begin negotiating (we all hope) a sustainable peace.

But my favorite is Wicker Man. Check it out along with a cool video below.


Mikey Pauker – Wicker Man from Eli Green on Vimeo.

His album can be heard on his website: http://www.myspace.com/planesoverbridgez/
If you are down that way, he has a live performance coming up on October 10, at The Mint in LA.

Good Listening,

Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area.

Summer’s Over!

It went so fast. Five weeks on the road: vacation, family visits, book promotion, and work. Now it is all over and we are back into the routine of life. It has been an eventful time, but it is also a watershed. Here is an overview:

1. Oilspill dotcom will be withdrawn by the end of September. After just over a year in print, it has been picked up by Three Clover Press. They will publish the novel under the title: The Accidental Activist. It has a wonderful new cover and has gone through numerous rounds of editing, both human and computer editing programs.
The Accidental Activist will be launched at the NCIBA trade show (Northern California Independent Bookstore Association, I think!) in mid October.

Oilspill dotcom is about to become a collector’s item: Hold on to your copies!

2. Blog: While this blog will remain to share my triumphs and…well triumphs, I will focus my marketing through a new blog on Word Press. Left Coast Voices will focus on politics and activism here on the West Coast. While writing entries for the group identified as potential readers, I hope to expose them to my novels and they won’t be able to stop themselves from flocking to the bookstores, and e-book sources.

This is an interesting approach. Other authors at Three Clover Press are doing this with encouraging success. However, it is a lot of work. Blogs succeed with a certain formula: multiple daily entries, links, and social media promotion. It feels daunting given that I manage to carve maybe an hour slot each day to write my new novel, edit the one being read at the Berkeley Writers Group, and market the books published.

3. Social Networking: I have been focusing my social networking efforts on various author e-groups around the ‘net. The idea is to offer constructive responses and leave a signature that will encourage people to check out your website and possibly to buy your books.
I will continue with this, but focus on groups that reflect my writings such as political activist groups. This is going to take a while to research and find the right groups. With the growing success that I am seeing for fellow authors myself and with Kindle, I will begin with groups on Amazon.

4. Website: It has been a few months since I updated www.alonshalev.com/. With the new book being launched, it high time that I work on this. Please take a moment over the next month to check it out and feel free to offer any suggestions to help improve it.

5. Alliance: This is where it gets complicated. Why didn’t I do all these aforementioned tasks over the summer when things slowed down? Actually they didn’t really slow much, but this is not the issue. I wrote in an earlier blog entry that my son Pele and I started writing a fantasy novel together.

The reality is that I have really got sucked into this and, as with my last novel – Lost Heroes – the story is pouring out. We have written over 45,000 words in the past few weeks and there is no sign of slowing down. It is constantly on my mind and I am having a hard time focusing on anything else in my writer’s world.

So, summer is over. At Hillel the next few months are intensive and I need to be totally on board for my students, staff and our stakeholders.

I’ve always thought sleep to be severely overrated!

Good Writing,


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