Womans leadership winner serves JCF for three decades

With three decades of Jewish community leadership under her belt, Barbara Isackson has been named the recipient of the first Judith Chapman Women's Leadership Award.

Chapman, a longtime colleague and family friend of Isackson's, died last year of complications following heart surgery. She left behind a legacy of volunteerism that inspired community leaders to create a charitable fund and a volunteer award in her name.

The award will be presented by the Judith Chapman Memorial Women's Leadership Fund of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Endowment Fund.

Many of the same boards and causes that Chapman served have also been Isackson's mitzvah stomping ground. Their San Francisco families were close and the two grew up in the same social circles.

"She was a wonderful woman and I feel extremely honored to get the award because she meant so much to me. I think she would have been happy that I was chosen," Isackson said.

The Hillsborough resident will receive the award Wednesday, March 24 at the "Power of One" dinner of the Women's Alliance of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, at San Francisco's Westin St. Francis Hotel. Mimi Halper Silbert, president and founder of the San Francisco Delancey Street Foundation, will be the keynote speaker.

A professional real estate manager, Isackson began her volunteer career in 1975 following a trip to Israel.

"No one went to Israel then and came back not turned on. It was a very different time, right after the Ma'alot massacre, when Israel was in desperate need of the American Jewish community," she recalled.

The 1975 massacre of 22 Israeli school children in Ma'alot by three Palestinians was a particularly low point in Israeli morale. The PLO operatives behind the slaughter were so-called moderates who had been negotiating with Israeli doves desperately seeking peace.

The act came amid a period of international animosity toward Israel over its hostilities with Syria. A legion of international troops had assembled inside Syria, primed for attack on the Jewish state.

"I think once you saw what the [Israelis] were going through and how much was needed, the [call to help] becomes apparent," she said.

Isackson chose to focus on the local Jewish community, bolstering the Israeli cause through federation channels and the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee. She chaired the JCF's annual campaign in 1988 and has been active on countless JCF task forces and advisory committees in the past 30 years.

As she grew more involved in local fund-raising, she became aware of a wide range of needs in the community. One volunteer effort led to another, and another.

Joelle Steefel, past president of the JCF Women's Alliance, called Isackson "a significant and consistent volunteer leader."

She is "a woman who values her Jewish identity and the value of tzedakah in her life…the kind of woman and leader who exemplifies what we want to promote in the community," she added.

Other past and present beneficiaries of her services as a board member include the Hebrew Free Loan Association, Jewish Vocational Service, the Jewish Bulletin, Jewish Family and Children's Services, American Jewish Committee and the future Scott Street Senior Housing Complex.

Non-Jewish organizations she has served include the Florence Crittenton Auxiliary, which assists a home for unwed mothers; the Town School for Boys; Partners Ending Domestic Abuse; and the UCSF Cancer Center executive volunteer cabinet.

After recently joining the Cancer Center's cabinet, Isackson has been fund-raising for a future research facility on the Mount Zion campus. Planned as a National Cancer Institute, the center will have the prestige to recruit cancer specialists and researchers from abroad who will be primed to influence national research and government regulation of the field.

"It's very rewarding to be part of something that will some day make an enormous difference. We in Northern California will be blessed to have this," Isackson said.

Isackson said she feels privileged to shape the policies that affect her community. In the same breath, she noted that her most important job has been raising four children. And with six grandchildren, ages 3 and under, she said lightheartedly, "I've become a baby-sitter par excellence."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.