Judith Chapman, 3-decade Jewish leader, dies at 59

Mourning one of its most beloved stalwarts, the Bay Area Jewish community this week recalled the gentle yet powerful leadership of Judith Sirbu Chapman, a self-avowed "professional volunteer" for nearly three decades.

Chapman died Sunday at Redwood City's Sequoia Hospital at age 59. She had been hospitalized for more than two months following complications from major heart surgery.

Over the years, Chapman lent her time and energy to myriad causes and organizations.

A board member of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, she had served as president of the JCF's Women's Division, president of the Jewish Community Relations Council and president of the Jewish Bulletin. She also served on the board of Stanford Hillel and was active in the Joint Action Committee for Political Affairs, a pro-Israel political action committee founded by and for women.

"Judith was truly a superb Jewish leader," said Rabbi Martin Weiner of San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel, where Chapman had been a longtime member.

"She had a very quiet competence, a gentle strength which inspired a sense of confidence and affection in all the people she worked with."

Along the same lines, Marc Klein, the Bulletin's editor and publisher, spoke of Chapman's "almost understated brilliance.

"She was an extremely intelligent woman who almost hid her intelligence," he said. "But it kept coming through. She would sit back and listen to discussions or arguments and then bring everyone together and resolve a situation."

A Menlo Park resident, Chapman involved herself in Jewish matters on the Peninsula as well as in San Francisco, often driving to the city several times a week for meetings and events.

Al Platt, executive director of the South Peninsula region of the Jewish Community Federation, grew tearful talking about his friend's level of devotion.

"She gave 300 percent to whatever she did," he said. "She understood how everything works institutionally, the structural stuff." At the same time, "she brought an extraordinary humanity and caring to how systems need to work."

At the time of her death, Chapman was president of the federation's South Peninsula Council, the equivalent of a board overseeing federation matters in that region.

Rich Seiler, who will take over as president of the council in Chapman's absence, recalled his colleague as straightforward and organized.

"She was always very well-prepared and knew exactly where she wanted to head a meeting," he said. "She was honest and forthright with people. She would say what she meant."

Calling Chapman a "leader's leader," Rabbi Doug Kahn also hailed her meeting skills. "She could have given Ph.D. courses in how to run a meeting," said the executive director of the JCRC.

A native of San Francisco, Chapman attended Lowell High School and U.C. Berkeley. In addition to Jewish matters, she had many other interests. She served on the Democratic Central Committee of San Mateo County, an elected position, and enjoyed "Star Trek," movies, books, international travel and sunny days at the ballpark.

"She was a fanatical Giants fan," Platt said.

During her illness, in fact, she had a pressing question for her doctor. "She asked would she able to be walk down the steps of Candlestick," her son Kenneth Fogel recalled with a laugh.

Lynn Chapman, Chapman's husband of 27 years, also recalled his wife's sense of humor, as well as her positive outlook and talent for incorporating disparate points of view.

"She was a very loving and forgiving person," he said. "She was loved or liked by everybody."

A memorial service for Chapman was held Wednesday at Sherith Israel.

Chapman is survived by her husband, as well as son Kenneth Fogel of Erie, Pa., and son Dan Fogel and his wife, Kim, of Richmond. She is also survived by stepson Bruce Chapman of Pasadena and his wife, Scarlette, as well as stepdaughter Deborah Fick of Phoenix and her husband, Glen. She leaves two grandchildren, Nicole and Trevor Jones. Dan and Kim Fogel are expecting a daughter, whom they plan to name after Chapman.

The family asks that contributions in Chapman's name be sent to Congregation Sherith Israel, 2266 California St., S.F., CA 94115, or the charity of one's choice.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.