Warren Sussman, gentle, powerful leader, dies at 62

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Warren Sussman's dedication to Jewish causes was so ingrained that even a diagnosis of cancer two years ago didn't stop him from fund-raising.

"When he was out of the hospital a day, he'd be out there soliciting," said Sandy Sussman, his wife of 38 years.

Sussman died at his Orinda home on Thursday of last week. He was 62.

His four decades of involvement included serving as president of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay from 1983 to 1985. At the time of his death, he was vice president of the federation's Endowment Foundation and a member of the federation's board of trustees.

Sussman, also immediate past president of the Home for Jewish Parents in Oakland, was currently co-chair of fund-raising for the home's new site, now under construction in Danville.

"There wouldn't be a new home if it hadn't been for him. Period," said Stu Seiler, who was one of Sussman's closest friends since the pair met in the early 1950s. "He worked tirelessly, even when he was sick."

Up to 500 mourners packed Sussman's synagogue, Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, for funeral services Sunday. The outpouring didn't surprise Ami Nahshon, the federation's executive vice president.

"Warren is one of the very few human beings I know [about whom] I never heard anyone say a single unkind word," said Nahshon, who delivered one of two eulogies.

Though Sussman helped raise millions of dollars over the decades, Nahshon said he never strong-armed anyone into giving money.

"Warren was one of the most gentle and powerful leaders in our community," Nahshon said. "He had a soft-spoken way about him, a way of making people feel respected and involved, that belied the strength of his convictions."

Likewise, Seiler described Sussman as a selfless and generous man.

"He was one of the most dedicated guys I knew," said Seiler, who is former president of the Jewish Home for the Aged in San Francisco and a former vice president of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

Born in Tacoma, Wash., Sussman was 10 when his family moved to Piedmont. He attended U.C. Berkeley and then joined Pacific Pipe Co., the family business in Oakland that his grandfather had started. Sussman continued to work as the firm's vice president in charge of sales until about five weeks ago.

Nearly all of his activities outside work were related to Jewish causes.

"He was deeply committed to everything that Judaism stood for," his wife said. "He lived it every day of his life."

The couple got involved in the federation's campaign soon after they were married. After moving to Contra Costa County more than three decades ago, the couple got involved in local projects.

In the early 1970s, Sussman volunteered as what his wife called "head janitor" for the Concord office of Jewish Family and Children's Services of the East Bay. Other than the synagogues, his wife noted, it was the only Jewish facility in the county.

Later, he was part of a small group that negotiated to create the county's first site for a Jewish community center in a burned-out Walnut Creek church. Meanwhile, the couple helped found the Contra Costa Area Council, an umbrella group for synagogues and Jewish groups.

In the early 1980s, Sussman followed his grandfather's footsteps and served as East Bay's federation's campaign chair. Soon after, he served as its president.

Years ago, he and his wife received the federation's Moses and Celia Lesser Young Leadership Award. Earlier this year, he became only the third recipient of the federation President's Award for lifetime achievement.

During his years on the board of the Home for Jewish Parents, he became president and took on fund-raising for a new building, the largest capital campaign in the history of the East Bay Jewish community.

Initially, "he was met with a lot of resistance from key people in the community who said it couldn't be done," said Raine Rude, a vice president on the home's board.

He went on to help raise more than $10 million for the project, which broke ground in June. Released from the hospital on the previous day, Sussman was able to attend that ceremony.

Rude attributed Sussman's success as a fund-raiser to both the example he set with his own donations and to his low-key, no-pressureapproach.

"In his pitches to the board of directors at the home, he was inspirational. He had a quiet, warm demeanor. People listened. He never had to raise his voice," said Rude, whose husband, Don, knew Sussman since childhood.

Sussman's activities reflected his belief that local activism was a key to Jewish strength.

"He had very strong feelings that the survival of our local Jewish communities was the only way that Israel could keep growing and that our children would have continuity in their Jewish life," his wife said.

While his two daughters were growing up, Sussman also coached youth sports teams and served as president of a parents' club.

He was a veteran of the Air Force Reserves.

In addition to his wife, survivors include daughters Laurie Ivry and Julie Drummond; sister Elinor Berke; sons-in-law Victor Ivry and Scott Drummond; brothers-in-law Gordon Berke and Harvey Levy; and grandchildren Jessica, Sarah and Claire Ivry, and Jacob and Lucas Drummond.

Burial took place in the Oakmont Memorial Park in Lafayette.

Contributions in Sussman's memory can be sent to the Home for Jewish Parents Memorial Fund, 2780 26th Ave., Oakland CA 94601; the Endowment Fund of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, 401 Grand Ave., Suite 500, Oakland CA 94610; or the Temple Isaiah Building Fund 2000, 3800 Mount Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, CA 94549.