Transcripts reveal motivation of S.F. Jewish leaders

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Laurence Myers, who grew up amid "endemic anti-Semitism" in Pennsylvania, defended Jews with his fists on the street.

Frances Green, raised in an affluent Jewish family in San Francisco, lighted Chanukah candles but received presents on Christmas as a girl.

Robert Sinton, who served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, came to believe that "the person who most influenced me in how important it was to be a Jew was Adolf Hitler."

Such events helped shape the personalities of these individuals, who went on to become presidents of the S.F-based Jewish Community Federation.

The reflections of 18 past presidents and executive directors have been recorded since 1990 in interviews with a U.C. Berkeley oral historian.

Known as the Jewish Community Federation Leadership Oral History Project, this set of transcribed interviews offers a behind-the-scenes look at the most influential Jews in the Bay Area. Eleven of the oral histories have been made public so far.

The interviews reveal the generosity and sense of obligation of the federation's top leaders, as well as their power and wealth.

The 11 leaders — now in their late 60s to mid-80s and in some cases deceased — are frank and at times brutally honest. Here are excerpts from their oral histories that focus on their personal lives. The second half of this series will shine light on their often controversial views on the local community and Israel.

Childhood

Some of these Jews experienced difficult times while growing up. Others had little Jewish education.

The late Samuel Ladar, federation president from 1965 to 1966, had one of the more tragic upbringings.

Born in 1903 in the Gold Rush town of Jackson, Ladar lost his mother in his early years.

He and two of his six sisters were sent to the then-Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum in San Francisco. Ladar described the orphanage, where he lived until age 11, as an "easy place to live and everything was nice."

Among his earliest memories of feeling Jewish was the "realization I was being cared for because I was Jewish," Ladar said in 1990, a year before his death.

That feeling stuck with him as an adult.

While a couple of the presidents, such as the late Mel Swig, had traditional Jewish upbringings and a proper Jewish education, others openly acknowledged their lack of religious schooling.

Peter Haas, born in 1918 in San Francisco, had neither a formal Jewish education nor a bar mitzvah. But his family, descendants of Levi Strauss, had a commitment to tzedakah that influenced him.

"It had to come from my forebears. It was part of my father and mother…They were both very much involved in philanthropy and helping in the community. That was rather an inheritance I guess," said Haas, a top executive at Levi Strauss & Co. who served as federation president from 1977 to 1978.

Jerome Braun, president from 1979 to 1980, described his Reform education in Missouri as "mediocre, to put it bluntly. I was bar mitzvahed but the Hebrew I learned was minimal, and I cannot now read Hebrew."

The late John Steinhart, president from 1969 to 1970, belonged to San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El but never attended synagogue, received formal religious education or celebrated a bar mitzvah. But being a self-described "cultural Jew" didn't preclude his involvement.

As an adult, however, Steinhart decided to play catch-up with the help of a Sunday-school teacher and federation campaign co-chair.

"I felt I had to learn something. Marshall Kuhn and I would have lunch in a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown, and he would educate me," Steinhart said two years before his death in 1994.

Green, federation president from 1975 to 1976, went to Sunday school and was confirmed at Emanu-El. But she didn't exactly have a traditional Jewish upbringing.

"Of course, we celebrated both Christmas and Chanukah. We would light the Chanukah candles without the presents. We got presents at Christmas," she said.

Her family carried on other traditions, though.

"We always had a seder dinner. One of the memories of Rosh Hashanah is during World War II my grandmother Dinkelspiel always having servicemen [over] for lunch," she said.

Anti-Semitism

American Jews in the 1990s might occasionally bump into an anti-Semite. But these leaders recall an entirely different atmosphere earlier this century. For some, the desire to defend Jews helped mold their sense of community obligation.

Born in 1922, Myers grew up in Scranton, Pa., amid "endemic anti-Semitism."

Back then, even a local Catholic church was "preaching about Jews drinking the blood of Christian kids. I know that for a fact," said Myers, federation president from 1986 to 1988.

"I was a very good boxer, so I would fight the battles of the Jewish community."

Jesse Feldman, born in 1916 in San Francisco, didn't recall personally confronting anti-Semitism. But Feldman, president from 1973 to 1974, said he knew that Stanford University's fraternities didn't accept Jews.

He also called it "a given" that San Francisco law firms in the 1930s and 1940s wouldn't hire any Jews as associates. That situation improved in the 1950s and 1960s, he said, noting that most major San Francisco law firms now have Jewish associates and partners.

Born in Massachusetts in 1915, Sinton noted that growing up Jewish on the East Coast meant being "someone who somebody else didn't like."

The late Sinton, who served as federation president from 1967 to 1968, saw anti-Semitism very much at play during his years in college.

While he studied engineering at Yale University, Sinton said, he knew that large companies like Du Pont, Monsanto and Dow would send representatives to campus for interviews. Only two out of eight companies would interview Sinton, though he was ranked second or third in the class of 10 to 12.

"There were not many Jewish engineers in those days," Sinton said in 1991, six years before his death.

Braun, born in 1929 in St. Joseph, Mo., recalled that the major country clubs didn't let Jews become members.

"My father was the first person invited to join and he refused, for obvious reasons. He just said, `I'm not going to be the house Jew,'" he said.

Swig, whose family is best known as owners of San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel, served as federation president from 1971 to 1972. He saw Jewish involvement in the non-Jewish world as a critical strategy for overcoming prejudice.

"The ghettoism, if you will, in both communities is such that they don't really get together enough. They don't socialize together, don't really meet together enough. Banks have excluded up until fairly recently Jews. Clubs excluded them. Universities used to…

"I felt that if I could become a part of the other community, identified as a Jew and helping that community and working with that community, they would find out that we don't have horns, that we are rather nice people," Swig said in 1991, two years before his death.

Richard Goldman, president from 1981 to 1982, found himself defending President George Bush in 1992 after Bush remarked that he felt under siege by Jews about loan guarantees to Israel.

"Anti-Semitism to me is a matter of degree," Goldman said. "I think every non-Jew is a little bit that way. In fact I think some Jews have anti-Semitic feelings toward other Jews.

"I think in his heart of hearts, President Bush is not an anti-anything person, nor is he anti-Semitic. I think he has, however, allowed his emotions to be affected by personal relations with Israeli leadership, in particular Mr. [Yitzhak] Shamir. It probably goes both ways."

Jew vs. Jew

Though today Jews lament divisions within the community, several interviews revealed a myth about past Jewish unity.

Myers recalled the divide between German and Eastern European Jews during his childhood, for example, when his uncle was asked to join a German Reform temple.

"He was the first non-German they asked to join the Reform temple," Myers said. His uncle replied: "I won't join. I'm not going to be the token non-German."

Sinton also remembered hearing the word "kike" in his childhood home.

"I can remember hearing that word used in my house, vis-a-vis other Jews…that word was used to describe someone who came from Eastern Europe," he said.

Myers recalled that an initial bad experience with the Jewish community briefly postponed his involvement.

When Myers moved to San Francisco in the early 1950s to start a business selling construction scaffolding, he was approached by Jews in the construction business to start donating to the federation.

"At the beginning, I resented the Jewish community. I didn't get any business from the Jewish general contractors — none. I was the only Jew in the scaffolding business, I couldn't understand it. But then I ultimately said, `Why should disadvantaged Jews suffer because these guys don't support me?' So I got involved," Myers said.

Holocaust

Among Ladar's earliest involvement in the Jewish community was helping refugees of Nazi Germany in the mid- to late 1930s find housing and work in San Francisco. The leaders would greet the refugees as they arrived at the waterfront.

"In those days, the trains all pulled into the Embarcadero area, and some [refugees] used to come over from Oakland on the ferry boats. We used to meet them and help them get into places where they could live, have food," said Ladar, federation president from 1965 to 1966.

Haas, who traveled to Europe with his family in 1939 when he was in his early 20s, wasn't aware of what was really going on in Germany.

"I must confess to this and I stand indicted. I wasn't conscious of what was happening in Germany. And I can't tell you why," he said.

Sinton, on the other hand, knew something sinister was happening in Germany but not the extent of it.

"My children have asked me, `Why didn't your generation do something about the terrible things that were going on in the camps?' I told them we learned more about the camps after the war than when it was going on," said Sinton, who served in the Navy for 3-1/2 years during World War II.

Still, Sinton concluded that if diaspora Jews had been more organized and therefore more powerful, they could have done something to prevent the millions of deaths. As a result, the Holocaust had a profound effect on his Jewish involvement.

"It's a terrible thing to admit but probably the person who most influenced me in how important it was to be a Jew was Adolf Hitler," Sinton said.

Goldman, who lost relatives on his mother's side to the Nazi death machine, also points to the Holocaust for his decision to get involved in Jewish fund-raising.

He and his late wife, Rhoda, decided to support Jewish charities shortly after their wedding in 1946.

"The Holocaust, when I finally came to grips with what happened, made a tremendous impression not only on me but on my wife as well from the moment we were married. I think we just made a commitment to ourselves without ever having to discuss it, that we would make sure it never happened again."