Forgoing politics, senators daughter joins JCC staff

Katherine Feinstein is the first to admit she didn't quit her city government job five months ago to help revive the financially shaken Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

"I certainly didn't leave there and say, `Maybe I'll go try and work for the JCC.' That's not how it happened," she said.

But last month, the only child of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-S.F.) became the JCC's assistant executive director for marketing and programs. Her duties include developing youth, adult and family activities and overseeing marketing efforts.

The JCC's well-publicized problems were part of the attraction and created a sense of challenge, she said. Over the past year, the center cut back much of its programming under the burden of an estimated $1.6 million deficit and is slowly rebounding.

Trained as a lawyer and raised among politicians, the 38-year-old San Franciscan acknowledges that her decision to work for the JCC has surprised a good number of people who consider her ripe for elected office.

But the younger Feinstein, who bears a striking resemblance to her mother, already has ruled out a political legacy.

"It doesn't appeal to me as a lifestyle," she said last week in an interview at the JCC in Laurel Heights. "I know it's what people expected of me. But it doesn't mean I have to do that."

The senator approves of her daughter's move.

"My mother thought this was a very good thing for me to do at this time in my life — unless I was going to do what she thought I really should do, which is run for the Board of Supervisors or district attorney. Since I wasn't going to do that — well, that's my mother," she said with a smile.

Feinstein, who graduated from U.C. Berkeley in 1981 and Hastings College of the Law in 1984, hasn't exactly followed the expected path. As a lawyer, she represented children in contested abuse, neglect and custody cases. She worked for her mother's unsuccessful bid for governor in 1990.

Under Frank Jordan, she was director of the Mayor's Criminal Justice Council, supervising youth programs and homeless services. Feinstein held that job for just over a year before resigning in late January after Willie Brown beat Jordan in a run-off election.

Feinstein, who has wavy, chin-length brown hair and wore a tailored red suit, said she could have remained under Brown but chose to resign for philosophical differences over the direction of her work.

Instead of immediately searching for a job, Feinstein decided to take a rare break. Even the birth of daughter Eileen, who is now 3-1/2, had kept Feinstein home for only six weeks.

So she began doing things she had postponed for 12 years since marrying and finishing law school — taking a cooking class, cleaning out the garage, seeing friends.

It was ultimately her daughter, who has been enrolled in the JCC's nursery school for the past two years, that brought Feinstein to the job.

After the JCC's longtime assistant executive director Nancy Drapin left in February, a friend who also has a child in nursery school suggested that Feinstein and JCC executive director Zev Hymowitz talk.

Feinstein's ties to the JCC go back to her own youth, when she learned to swim in the center's pool and attended its summer day camp. But Hymowitz acknowledges that most center directors wouldn't have hired Feinstein, who had no previous JCC management experience.

"It's what you call a bold hire," he said. "If she walked into a different executive's office in a different city, they might not see the fit."

Hymowitz, who has spent the past 11 months trying to turn around the financially crippled JCC, was ready to look beyond the obvious.

"This is exactly what we need right now: Someone who is a good manager. Someone who has a vision. Someone who can deal with people. Someone who is interested in this institution," Hymowitz said.

Feinstein added that she doesn't see her job description as drastically different from what she has done before.

"I've packaged programs a lot before. Putting together a marketing strategy isn't much different from putting together a strategy for policy or a strategy for a candidate," she said.

Feinstein, who describes herself as an unaffiliated Jew, hopes to bring a fresh eye to assess the needs of the Jewish community and to balance change with continuity.

In many ways, she must start the work from scratch because the JCC's once-full schedule was pared down to a minimum since a financial crisis surfaced nearly 1-1/2 years ago. At its peak, the deficit totaled $1.6 million. That figure is now estimated at about $300,000.

But Feinstein, who is working without a contract and wouldn't reveal her salary, said the problems are exactly what attracted her to the job.

"It was an interesting challenge for me," she said. "If everything were up and smooth and running and perfect, I wouldn't have been interested in it."