JCF taps dot-commer/entrepreneur for top position

As the new chief executive of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, Sam Salkin hopes to harness a marketing talent that helped make Peet's coffee a local favorite to further Jewish involvement in the Bay Area.

And while the JCF has constituencies rather than customers, Salkin said some of the same business principles can be applied to running a nonprofit.

Peet's has developed "a relationship with their customers that's legendary," said Salkin, the former president of the company.

In a nonprofit as well as in a business, "We have to be consistently looking at that relationship and make it the highest quality, but look at ways to continually improve it."

Salkin, who is also the former president of upscale gardening company Smith & Hawken and most recently was vice president of merchandising of More.com, will take over the helm of the JCF as chief executive on Wednesday.

The bespectacled, 50-year-old Salkin, who until recently sported a ponytail, marks a sharp departure for the federation, whose executives have usually moved up the rungs in communal organizations rather than entrepreneurial circles.

"He's clearly not your father's Oldsmobile," said Alan Rothenberg, a past JCF president and chair of the search committee.

"We wanted someone who could stand back and say, 'What's it going to take to have a vibrant Jewish community?'" Rothenberg added. "Sam has lived it and believes in it, and he's someone who's good at branding and marketing."

Talking over a cup of coffee at a South of Market cafe last Friday, Salkin discussed his new post animatedly — the same one his friend Wayne Feinstein held for nine years before stepping down at the end of June.

While Salkin began his career in community organizing, he then shifted to the business world. He spent one year at JCF as chief operating officer in 1997, calling it an "experiment," but then, intrigued by e-commerce, he was drawn to More.com, an online health-wellness company.

He wasn't looking to leave his job there. But as someone who has always been deeply involved in the Jewish community — he is on the board of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and sent his daughters to Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito — he slowly began to consider the federation post.

"It was a continuum of my not thinking about it to thinking about it but not pursuing it, to exploring it with caution," he said. "Then at a certain point I began to get passionate about it and realized I seemed right for it and it seemed right for me."

The transition from being a behind-the-scenes kind of guy to someone much higher profile will take some getting used to, said Salkin, who lives in Kensington.

"I'm not a very public person. But my job is to support the visibility of the lay leaders who give so much of themselves."

Salkin said that as someone who has spent most of his career outside the Jewish world, he felt he could bring unique organizational skills to the position.

People who have risen through the federation system, he said, "often are more focussed on the process than on results."

As he told a meeting of the board of directors last week, "I have a respect for process, a respect for what has come before and a strong sense that the future demands departures from the past."

Recently, the JCF has been giving money directly to programs in Israel that support pluralism and programs that promote peace. Salkin plans to continue those efforts.

"The painful events recently demonstrate that while our commitment and support are as crucial as ever, the specific forms of effective support are not nearly as clear," he said. "What is clear is that our community and the community of Jews in Israel need each other in mutually interdependent ways, as never before."

And just as the federation has taken a leadership role in promoting religious pluralism in Israel, it should do similar work at home, he said. "Jews of all streams will feel welcome and encouraged to participate in the federation."

Salkin plans to do a lot of listening and learning once he starts, especially from the lay leaders, whom he called "bright and incredibly dedicated, both in their energy and financial commitments."

And already, he'll come in to face a full plate. He'll be heading to Chicago to attend the General Assembly, the annual meeting of federations, after three days on the job. Also in November, there will be a JCF solidarity mission to Israel. In addition, the federation recently announced plans to purchase two buildings adjacent to its Steuart Street headquarters for its associated agencies.

"The issues federation will be grappling with in the next 10 years are important and engaging, and I know I'll find them interesting," said Salkin. "With this job I'll be able to be passionate about what I do, which is critical for me."

Salkin, said Rothenberg, is "a smart, sweet, caring guy who we think will move us on to the next plateau."

John Goldman, JCF president, called Salkin "a great choice. He is someone who is seemingly well-accepted at every level."

Salkin is a native of western Pennsylvania, and has lived in the Bay Area since 1991. Before that he lived in Anchorage, Ala., where his wife, Frankie Whitman, was involved in founding a synagogue.

They have two daughters, Sarah, 16, and Leah, 14. Whitman works for a dot-com that matches organic farmers with restaurants, and the family belongs to Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."