SF Board of Supervisors welcomes first Jewish Latina, an immigrant from El Salvador
Myrna Melgar is a lot of things. Elected in November to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, she’s a first-time office holder; the first Latina elected to the board; an immigrant from El Salvador; a descendant of Jewish scholars; a mother; the child of an engineer and a communist militant; and a part of the local Jewish community.
And she says that unique combination is what makes her go.
“That’s like my whole shtick,” she told J. recently, speaking about efforts to bring disparate groups of people together to focus on shared concerns.
“Sometimes in this town we wear our identity, in terms of who’s progressive, who’s moderate, this or that, in ways that are not collaborative, that are more antagonistic,” she said. “And because I’m used to walking in different worlds, I’m also used to engaging with people and finding what we have in common rather than what we disagree on.”
Melgar’s family history has several twists and turns that seem straight out of fiction. She can trace her roots back to a scholar and rabbi, Benjamin Simon Oppenheimer, who died in 1908 in Germany as a highly respected and prosperous man.
One of his children, Julius, immigrated to San Francisco and founded an S.F.–El Salvador import-export company, naming it “Casa Benny” after his father. A 1909 newspaper clipping commemorating Benny’s yahrzeit said that Julius “and his wife from San Salvador donated an eternal light for the Synagogue of König” to honor the occasion.
“The company was really successful,” Melgar said. “The Oppenheimers kind of made their fortune in El Salvador at the turn of the century, when manufactured goods were coming into Central America, and El Salvador had the best infrastructure.”
One generation later, Melgar’s grandfather, Guillermo, was born in El Salvador. But in a rift with his family, he changed his name from Oppenheimer to Melgar and converted to Christianity. (Oddly enough, he did not choose Catholicism, the dominant religion of his country, but became a Southern Baptist, Melgar said.)
It led to a family full of strange tensions, said Melgar, who lived with her grandfather after her parents divorced.
“He had been raised Jewish but converted to Christianity, and was really resentful of the family, the religion, everything,” Melgar, 50, explained.
“I grew up in my grandfather’s house. We always had a sense of being Jewish,” she added. “We lit candles on Fridays. We didn’t eat pork. But it was also like a family secret. Like something that we talked about but didn’t advertise to other people.”
Melgar’s parents’ marriage had fallen apart in a tumultuous fashion, one that mirrored the politics of the day in El Salvador, where conflict between a military-backed government and an organized, left-wing, armed insurgency culminated in a civil war that tore the country apart for more than a decade.
Melgar’s father was an engineer, and her mother was a communist militant who went underground.
“She was a combatant, and she left us, which is how I ended up growing up in my grandfather’s house on the Jewish side of the family,” Melgar said. “Because my mom was fighting a revolution.”
In spite of political turmoil, Melgar and her sisters lived a comfortable life in San Salvador. Her father owned a company and she went to school at the French lycée. But when she was 12, everything changed when her father was targeted in an assassination attempt, part of a wave of killings in the country.
“His driver was wounded and my dad was OK,” Melgar said. “But within two weeks we left. We left everything. We feared for his life, so we left our house, our everything. And we ended up here.”
It was definitely a shock in every way for a young girl who didn’t speak English.
“We had a pretty privileged life in El Salvador, and then we came here and we were living in a tiny little studio off of Mission Street, and I remember we had no food,” she said.
Eventually, after a few years, Melgar’s father was able to find work as an engineer, putting the family on a more stable financial footing. His daughters ended up at Woodside High School on the Peninsula.
“My sister and I were the only Latino kids in the whole school then,” she said. “It was definitely a crash course in race in America.”
She went on to Excelsior College in upstate New York and then to Columbia University in New York City for a master’s degree in urban planning. Housing and land use has been a big part of her career: She was president of the San Francisco Planning Commission until she stepped down to run for supervisor. Before that, she spent seven years as director of homeownership programs under Gov. Gavin Newsom when he was mayor of San Francisco.
While leading the planning commission, she was the executive director of Jamestown, also called the Jamestown Community Center, a nonprofit that provides high-quality after-school academic enrichment, tutoring and leadership development in the Mission District.
“I’ve been in community service my whole life because I feel like I have to pay it back,” she said. “This city was good to me and my family.”
Melgar is married to attorney Sean Donahue and has three daughters; she lives in the District 7 neighborhood of Ingleside Terraces. She was inspired to run for the Board of Supervisors after participating in Emerge, a national program that trains Democratic women on how to run and win a political campaign. Melgar said the head of the group was the first person who encouraged her to step into the spotlight.
“I had always been in politics, and been somebody’s campaign manager, or treasurer, or something. Usually to a guy,” Melgar said with a laugh. “And she was the first person who said to me, ‘No, you can do it, you’ve got these skills.’”
Melgar is seen as a moderate and a possible ally to Mayor London Breed; the mayor endorsed Melgar but also endorsed her opponent, Joel Engardio. Outgoing District 7 Supervisor Norman Lee, who has reached his term limit, also endorsed Melgar.
After she is sworn in on Jan. 8, Melgar will focus on helping the city pull through the Covid-19 pandemic, she said. After that, she said, her focus will be on issues dear to her, such as expanding child care and supporting women’s economic empowerment.
“I’m ready to pull up my sleeves just because there is so much to do,” she said. “Kids need to be back at school, so many people don’t have food, the basics. So I’m looking forward to working hard.”
Melgar is an active member of Congregation Beth Israel Judea, which is merging with Congregation B’nai Emunah.
“We’ve always been aware of her civic-mindedness and her commitment to the betterment of our civic community,” said Rabbi Danny Gottlieb, who is retiring from Beth Israel Judea. Gottlieb, who has known Melgar for many years, noted that Jewish values are in line with public service, and “I think Myrna is an example of living those values.”
Until recently, Melgar was on the board of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, and on Dec. 17 was one of several newly elected officials from around the Bay Area who lit candles at the JCRC’s virtual menorah lighting — but the only one to recite the prayers.
It was in young adulthood, Melgar said, that she found her way back to Judaism, the religion and culture her grandfather rejected. She said she connected with Judaism both on a spiritual level and through what she calls her own family’s very Jewish habits of analysis and discussion.
“When I started exploring Judaism, it just sort of fell into place,” she said. “I don’t know how to explain it, but It just felt so right.”
She has officially converted and isn’t the only one in her family to have done so, thereby connecting a line back to those German scholars of old.
“My grandfather had four sons, my father being one of them,” she said. “Two of them converted back to Judaism, and I would say a third of my cousins have converted back to Judaism, including myself. So it’s like a rubber band.”