From Gold Rush era through modern times, S.F. federation thrives

San Francisco during the height of the California Gold Rush was a wild mining town filled with boarding houses, saloons and gambling halls.

But that didn't stop the city's earliest Jewish immigrants from forming the first private voluntary philanthropic organization west of the Mississippi — known today as the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

Created to provide San Francisco's growing Jewish community with "aid for the needy, care for the sick and burial for the dead," the organization — founded in 1850 by 13 men in a small room — was originally called the Eureka Benevolent Society.

By the turn of the century, the society's success spawned a dozen more charitable organizations: They provided everything from free medical care for indigent Jewish patients to newcomers' citizenship classes and Jewish education for children. But with all of these organizations seeking funds from a Jewish population whose resources were limited, the situation soon became competitive and chaotic.

Attempting to launch one annual fund-raising appeal on behalf of the entire Jewish community, the organizations joined forces in 1910 and established the Federation of Jewish Charities.

In its first year, the federation allocated twice the amount its agencies had collected in previous, separate fund-raising drives. One decade later, the number of federation donors had increased by 300 percent, with a 100 percent jump in contributions.

Along with the rise in collections, however, came an increase in nonlocal appeals. At one point there were 50 different requests from a variety of national and overseas agencies — including some that were instrumental in the early rescue of Jewish refugees from European pogroms.

This led to the creation, in 1925, of the Jewish National Welfare Fund, which was responsible for conducting one annual appeal for all of these agencies.

Finally in 1955, responding to the need for greater unification, the Federation of Jewish Charities and the Jewish National Welfare Fund consolidated to become the Jewish Welfare Federation of San Francisco, Marin County and the Peninsula. Its first president was Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel.

According to Jesse Feldman, who at the age of 80 is now the federation's oldest living former president, the merger changed "what was really quite a small organization" into one that is now "truly complex."

Feldman, who served as president from 1973 to 1974, having been involved with the organization previously, said reaching out to suburban communities and to Israel is one of the federation's greatest accomplishments.

Succeeding Feldman was Frances Green, Dinkelspiel's daughter. She served from 1975 to 1976, and although the position had previously been held only by men, Green maintained that as president she "never felt stereotyped or put down."

She helped open the door for women to take the helm at other major San Francisco philanthropic organizations, as well.

Annette Dobbs — who in 1988 became the federation's second woman president — devoted herself to the Jewish community after going on a United Jewish Appeal Women's Division Mission to Vienna in 1971.

In Austria, Dobbs visited the Mauthausen concentration camp. "I was walking around the camp when the sudden realization `I've got to do something' hit me. I know it sounds corny and dramatic, but I remember taking off my scarf and tying it to a pole at the camp as a sign of my personal commitment to the Jewish people."

By the time Dobbs became federation president, the organization had changed its title to the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma counties. The name change reflects the federation's decision in the early '80s to do even more outreach.

Today, federation dollars help to provide services such as housing and medical care for the elderly; emergency food, shelter and cash for those in need; resettlement for immigrants here and in Israel; and services to people with AIDS.

Still operating under the same basic principle of tzedakah (charity) that early settlers brought with them from the old country, the Jewish Community Federation now raises money for some 60 Jewish agencies and programs locally as well as in Israel and elsewhere overseas.