Two famous “cities on the bay,” Haifa in Israel and San Francisco in California, just celebrated 50 years as sister cities. Appropriately enough, both currently are led by female mayors.
And when San Francisco Mayor London Breed was in Haifa recently to sign a memorandum of understanding with Haifa Mayor Einat Kalisch-Rotem on taking the sister relationship into the next half century, they discovered something else in common: resiliency.
“We were moved by how our entire delegation dealt with the issue of rocket attacks during our visit,” Breed told ISRAEL21c, referring to more than 1,000 missiles launched from Gaza from May 9 to 13, the same five days she and a 30-person delegation were visiting Haifa, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Bethlehem on a trip organized by the San Francisco – Haifa Sister City Committee and the Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area.
“Although it was daunting, and a previously unknown risk factor for many delegation members, security issues were faced with bravery and a newfound understanding of what the everyday lives of Israelis are like,” said Breed.
After touring the rocket-proof 2,000-bed underground hospital at Haifa’s Rambam Health Care Campus, a medical center that shares best practices in emergency medicine and trauma with Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, Breed remarked that perhaps San Francisco “should tear down the old General Hospital, build it as big as we can [and] go underground — exactly what they did at Rambam.”
Breed said she saw her own city mirrored in pictures of early Haifa shown to her during a visit to the University of Haifa.
“We were all astounded that we couldn’t tell the difference between decades-old photos of the San Francisco and Haifa waterfronts — highlighting how similar our cities truly are,” she said.
A tale of two downtowns
Post-pandemic, both municipalities are struggling to revitalize their downtown areas. This was a top-of-agenda discussion point during Breed’s visit to Israel’s third-largest city.
“We thought the ‘Haifa 2030’ initiative we learned about was relevant for San Francisco’s urban renewal plan, especially because we are facing challenges bringing people to San Francisco’s downtown,” Breed told ISRAEL21c.
“Haifa 2030 is a planning, strategy, research and development body focused on urban renewal, including the revitalization of their downtown. It was impressive how they put together a team of experts from diverse fields to form a multifaceted approach to urban renewal,” she said.
“They touched upon everything from bike paths and sports offerings, to commerce and tourism, to preservation of antiquities. Similarly, my Roadmap to Downtown San Francisco’s Future plan is a very comprehensive blueprint for the revitalization of our downtown and I look forward to seeing these strategies come to fruition.”
Among other facets of the Haifa 2030 plan, Breed toured the University of Haifa’s new Lorry I. Lokey City Campus intended as a downtown driver of academic and high-tech pursuits.
The effects of climate change, including droughts, were another urgent topic of discussion between Breed and the scientists she met at institutes such as the University of Haifa and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.
Are there potential areas of collaboration to overcome these challenges?
“Absolutely,” said Breed.
“For one, San Franciso has much to learn from how Israel overcame droughts, including desalination efforts. JCRC Bay Area and other local stakeholders previously hosted Israel’s former head of desalination in the Bay Area, where he met with SFPUC [San Francisco Public Utilities Commission] officials and experts in the field.”
In addition, Breed told ISRAEL21c, “Israel leads the way with water recycling and water-efficient toilets, while San Francisco has made great strides through water-efficient taps and other municipal conservation measures.
“Sharing best practices, and ongoing collaboration, is a wonderful way to overcome climate change-related water issues.”
As the leader of a city with a minority-majority population (primarily Asian and Latino), Breed was especially interested in ethnic diversity in Haifa, where about 10 percent of residents are Arab Christians and 25% are Jews from the former Soviet Union; and in Tel Aviv, home to about 40,000 African migrants.
“Our entire delegation was deeply moved and impressed by our visit to Ethiopian Israeli Heritage Center Battae [in Tel Aviv], and the center founder Ashager Araro’s personal story and mission,” Breed said.
“Ashager shared her family’s near-death encounter crossing the desert as they made aliyah to Israel, and how it led to her current mission to empower and uplift the Ethiopian-Israeli youth and community,” Breed continued.
“In addition, our African-American delegation members found many similarities between their local, ongoing work and the work Ashager is doing, focused on cultural representation and equity in education.”
Breed and her delegation also engaged with Arab citizens of Israel, Palestinians, and LGBTQ activists. She visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial, and the Western Wall, and met with Israeli President Isaac Herzog.
“We are proud to bring Mayor Breed on her second trip to Israel” and first as mayor, said Tye Gregory, JCRC Bay Area CEO.
“The itinerary of our Sister City Mission reflects the shared values of San Francisco and Haifa, such as our commitments to democracy and civic engagement, empowering diverse communities, celebrating arts and culture, and promoting innovation in health and sciences.”