Jewish National Fund shuts the door on S.F. office

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

After waffling for six months, the Jewish National Fund is pulling the plug on its San Francisco office, which served Northern California and seven states for 24 years.

Although the local board of directors had not been informed as of Wednesday, the remaining two staffers were served with walking papers effective today.

"They laid off [office manager] Lesley [Cooper] and they're closing the office," John Rothmann, chairman of the regional board, said Wednesday. "No one has been in touch with me at all. No one has paid me the courtesy of a phone call, and I'm the chairman of the board."

The action is the final blow in a contentious relationship that dates back several months to when the New York-based national board of directors announced the axing of the San Francisco branch — without informing the local organization.

Although the remaining employees have now been sent packing, the national board is playing it coy.

"The office is not closing," said Suzanne Rosenblatt, director of marketing and communications at national JNF. "It's staying open. We're looking for a part-time employee for it."

Cooper turned down a request to work only one day a week.

The laid-off employees from the San Francisco office have plenty of company. The JNF has reduced its number of local branches from 33 to 21 in the past year.

"They can use whatever euphemisms they want," said another local JNF board member who has become disenchanted with the national direction.

"The lease extends until April, and there will be furniture there. But the calls and the mail are being forwarded to Los Angeles. If you want to call that keeping the office open, fine. But they're not being very honest with the community."

During a May visit to San Francisco, JNF development director Seth Moskowitz said the cost-cutting measures will ultimately mean more money for Israel.

In the face of a looming public-relations disaster, the national board reversed course. However, several employees received layoff notices at that time.

Moskowitz did not return calls made earlier this week.

Those involved in the running of the San Francisco office contend the national directors have not seriously considered either the branch's value or the repercussions of the pullout. The S.F. office serves Northern California, Alaska, Hawaii, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington.

Moskowitz has charged that "zero percent" of the money raised in the Bay Area actually made it to Israel. Not so, locals say.

"The big gifts came from benefactors who would remember JNF in their wills," said John Leipsic, president of the regional board. "Because of [the national organization's] accounting practices, we never got credit for it."

Added Rothmann, "We raised over $10 million during my tenure."

Still, Leipsic praised national CEO Russell Robinson for righting the wobbly organization after it ran aground in 1996.

Reports of shoddy fiscal practices in the Zionist philanthropic organization emerged in 1996. Only 21 percent of donations arrived at the intended destination.

An independent audit blamed sloppy accounting practices.

JNF officials acknowledged that some of the money — more than $10 million out of a total $27 million raised in 1994 — was spent on stateside Zionist and education programs. Donations fell off slightly after the mismanagement became a big news story.

In a shake-up at the top ranks, cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder was named board president, and Robinson, former fund-raising macher for the United Jewish Appeal, was appointed CEO.

The Los Angeles office, which the JNF "wouldn't dream of closing," will gain a staff member, Moskowitz said in May — and responsibility for all the San Francisco office's turf.

The reason: "We have very active donors in San Diego and Orange County," he said then.

Rothmann said Sherri Morr, director of the Los Angeles-based Southern California regional office, assured him "if there were any changes being proposed, there would be a full discussion." There was none, he said.

Morr, who is now zone director for the Western states, referred all calls about the San Francisco office to Rosenblatt.

But "there is plenty of opportunity that goes untapped" in the Northern California, Leipsic said. "Without a presence here, it will be much harder. I have my doubts about trying to do fund-raising from Los Angeles. We're worlds apart."

Moskowitz had said that expenses have been slashed by $4.5 million over the past two years, and staff, including executive directors, sliced from 240 to 140. However, the organization would not make its records available.

The JNF, best known for planting trees in Israel, now funds such projects as reservoirs, roads and forest projects in the Jewish state.

Those endeavors, Leipsic said, are part of a larger problem. In the face of changing times, "the JNF hasn't redefined itself."

"People think, 'Hey, if they need a road, let the multimillion dollar company that needs it build it. You're not helping these poor Jews coming out of concentration camps anymore.'"

Meanwhile, some lay leaders appear to be resigning themselves to the local office's demise.

"Do I think it will cost something to JNF?" Leipsic said. "Of course. Out of sight, out of mind."

But, he added, "Philanthropy, it is a-changin'. We all grew up with the blue boxes, but it's a whole different world now."

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.