Eager to top record, JCF leader chairs campaign a 2nd time

Active in a number of community organizations, both Jewish and secular, Saal helped raise a record $19.8 million in the 1997 campaign, topping the previous year's $19.04 million. In 1998, she's determined to break her own record.

"The extraordinary success inspired me to continue to go with the momentum I began last year," she said. "Although there are different issues and perhaps more challenges, I love challenges."

A self-described "professional volunteer," Saal, 57, graduated from Mount Holyoke College and did graduate work in early childhood education. After marrying Harry Saal, she became involved in high-tech start-up companies that he launched. Today both Saals are heavily involved in philanthropic and volunteer work.

"I think that perhaps more than money, nonprofit organizations need the expertise of business people and marketing people, and that's my field," she said. "Being able to bring that skill set to bear on nonprofit organizations whose missions I'm interested in, I've found, is exceedingly more rewarding than being part of the business environment and earning more money."

Like running a business, coordinating a campaign involves "certain constants," she said, citing "hard work, and lots of quality face-to-face meetings with donors to educate them on the issues and the priorities. And then you have to work around those things you have no control over, such as the economy, events in Israel and changes in people's priorities and habits."

While last year, "the big issue was the peace process, this year it has definitely evolved into the issues of pluralism and Jewish unity.

"It really cuts to the heart of American Jewry," she said. "It's a much more troublesome issue because Americans feel they're being invalidated."

One of the challenges is to let potential donors know that by withholding their contributions, "they're really penalizing the entire Jewish community both here and abroad." In addition, she said, the Jewish federations and the United Jewish Appeal "contribute more in absolute dollars to those organizations in Israel which fight for pluralism, democracy and Arab-Israeli dialogue than any other single organization around."

Moreover, she said, through the JCF's Amuta (an organization of volunteers in Israel) and its other direct projects in the Jewish state, the federation has the infrastructure to evaluate programs in Israel and channel funds to those that promote unity.

Saal, who lived in Haifa for three years, arrived in Israel with her husband and children in 1973, two weeks before the Yom Kippur war broke out. The experience, she has said, "solidified my bond to the Jewish people" and inspired her to become a Jew-by-choice.

Today, she said, "I would like to see a tolerant, flexible, open, democratic Israel."

Two federation-supported projects in Israel she champions are the Adam Institute for Peace and Democracy and the Pelech School, which brings together students from religious and secular high schools for dialogue.

In addition, she said, the lion's share of federation dollars helps Israel absorb the 60,000-plus emigres who continue to arrive each year from the former Soviet Union, as well as other refugees from Ethiopia.

Alleviating hunger among the elderly in the former Soviet Union is another key focus for the 1998 campaign. The JCF helps to support efforts coordinated by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

"I was there in June in Ukraine and personally visited with some of the communities and some of the elderly who are suffering," said Saal. In regions where the poverty level is $140 a month, many elders are surviving on $25 a month, she added.

Saal said she was particularly impressed by the involvement of community volunteers, who package and distribute food and supplies to the needy.

"We can as Jews honestly say that while there are people starving all over the globe, we make sure that there are no Jews starving anywhere. We've always done that and we need to continue to do that — especially for the most vulnerable people."

In addition to her involvement in federation, Saal is a member of Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto. She is on the board of the American Associates of Ben-Gurion University and HaTikvah, a Jewish group home for developmentally disabled adults. She is also involved in fund-raising for Lucile Packard Children's Hospital and the Center for Clinical Immunology at Stanford.

Saal, whose grown children Jessica Goldman and Nathaniel Saal also live in Palo Alto, is determined to expand the federation donor base and contribution level in Silicon Valley, which she feels is lower than it should be.

"I want federation to have more of a public presence among the Jews of Silicon Valley," she said. "We're still trying to work on that, quite honestly."

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].