JCF president seeks to build ties with synagogues

Alan E. Rothenberg, who is beginning a two-year stint as president of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, is developing a plan for closer ties with synagogues.

"There is so much more that the federation could be doing in the realm of cultural, spiritual and educational programming," he said in a recent interview.

Rothenberg hopes that by working closely with synagogues, the federation can increase community involvement and "strengthen our partnership with our rabbinic leaders."

He is also working on ways to involve Jews born since the 1950s. Research shows techniques that worked in the past are inadequate, he said.

"We have a tradition in our community, dating back to the Gold Rush, of caring for those in need, spiritually, physically and emotionally," he said. "Today's young Internet designers are just as hungry for a sense of belonging as the miners and merchants who gathered together on Kearny Street a century and a half ago to lay the groundwork for our Jewish community. We can help satisfy that hunger."

As an example of what can be done, Rothenberg cited the JCF task force on programs for teenagers, co-chaired by Susan Mall and his wife, Susan. It has worked with synagogues to launch regional educational programs open to all teens regardless of affiliation.

"These programs, which will include retreats and community high schools, are getting under way now with the support of the endowment fund," he noted.

Rothenberg also praised the Jewish family education project, which was created recently to strengthen Jewish identity among families.

"We have a full-time family educator working out of the Bureau of Jewish Education, consulting with programmers in synagogues and JCCs. With seed funding by our endowment fund and the federation's annual campaign, scores of new families have taken first steps into Jewish life."

When it comes to taking the initiative and building a strong Jewish community, Rothenberg himself is following a family tradition. His father, Emil Rothenberg, a refugee from Vienna, was a leader in the small Jewish community of Wheeling, W.Va.

"One day my father was visiting the Jewish graves that were crowded together in the back of the local Catholic cemetery," remembered Rothenberg. "Workers were trying to dig a new grave in the Jewish section but the graves were crowded together so tightly that the men kept scraping the coffins on either side. My father was determined not to let that happen again.

"He and a group of his friends bought a small farm outside of Wheeling and created the cemetery that still serves the Jewish community there now. He saw what needed to be done and did it. Anonymously."

Rothenberg's father has since died, "but his values and his sense of community are something I treasure," said the JCF president.

According to Wayne Feinstein, executive vice president of the JCF, Rothenberg's commitment to the Jewish community is apparent to all who know him. "I believe that Alan sees our community, as diverse as it is, as one big family. It's hard for anyone to resist his intelligence, his enthusiasm and his desire to get things done."

Rothenberg and his wife, a social worker specializing in child and adolescent issues, moved to San Francisco from Chicago in 1969.

Armed with an MBA in urban studies from the University of Chicago and an interest in city planning, he brought with him a conviction that affordable housing could be created through private financing.

By 1972, Rothenberg was serving on the Association of Bay Area Governments' Housing Task Force, as well as the California Housing Task Force, in the Office of the Attorney General. Later, he chaired the Bay Area Council's Housing Task Force.

In 1976 Rothenberg, by then a member of San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel, began serving on the board of Homewood Terrace, a residential treatment center for adolescents, where he helped lay the groundwork for a merger with Jewish Family and Children's Services. In 1978, he joined the board of Menorah Park and helped secure zoning approval for its building on Sacramento Street, later serving as president of the new agency.

Along with his volunteer activities, Rothenberg built a successful career in mortgage and merchant banking, working for Bank of America, Citizen's Savings (now First Nationwide Bank) and Bank of California, with a brief tour in Sacramento as California secretary of business and transportation.

In 1985, he co-founded the merchant banking company Huret, Rothenberg & Co., specializing in merger and acquisition services, where he now serves as president, in addition to his work as a senior consultant at Montgomery Securities.

He and his wife are the parents of two daughters. Sara is a recent graduate of Kenyon College in Ohio, her father's alma mater where he serves as a trustee, and Alexandra is a freshman at St. John's College in Santa Fe, N.M.

Rothenberg's association with the federation dates back to 1975 when the JCF's executive director, Rabbi Brian Lurie, began to cultivate Rothenberg's fascination with Israel.

"I became very interested in the projects we funded in Israel," Rothenberg recalled. "Then, in 1982, I went on a mission led by Richard Goldman that included a trip to northern Israel.

"I remember sitting in a bomb shelter in the North Hotel in Kiryat Shmona two weeks before the invasion of Lebanon. We met with a general in the IDF and a colonel from the South Lebanese Army. I realized then how precarious life in the northern Galilee was, and how difficult it would be to strengthen their economic base so that people would want to live there."

In 1985, the federation decided to redirect hundreds of thousands of dollars from its annual campaign, previously channeled through United Jewish Appeal, and set them aside for projects of its own selection in Israel. One of the first projects was the Small Business Loan Fund, which Rothenberg designed with the help of members of the JCF's newly formed Amuta, an advisory committee of Israeli volunteers.

In partnership with Israel's Bank Hapoalim, the loan fund has helped create more than 500 jobs by providing low-interest loans, initially to small businesses in Kiryat Shmona, the federation's partnership city, and later throughout the northern Galilee. The fund has not experienced a single loss.

"I was chair of the Project Renewal committee when Alan came up with the idea of the loan fund," remembered Annette Dobbs, who later served as JCF president. "The program worked so effectively it became the model for the entire country."