Benefactor purchases $20 million S.F. campus for JCHS

A year ago, when Mem Bernstein heard that a Bay Area group planned to start the Jewish Community High School of the Bay, she got in touch with the leaders to see if she could help.

And she did — beyond all expectations.

Keren Keshet, the New York-based foundation of which Bernstein is a trustee, recently spent more than $20 million to purchase the California College of Podiatric Medicine, which sits on a nearly full city block at 1210 Scott St. in San Francisco's Western Addition. If JCHS matches the $20 million through fund-raising over the next five years or expands its enrollment to 400, the foundation will deed the site over to the school. All money raised by JCHS will go directly to the school, not to repay Keren Keshet.

"This is a fabulous opportunity for the Jewish community of San Francisco. That's how we see it," said Bernstein, a former San Francisco resident who lives in Jerusalem and New York. "Twenty million dollars is a large amount of money for anyone to raise over any period of time, but it's not unrealistic."

Her daughter Suzanne Dryan Felson, who lives in San Francisco and is a board member of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, informed Bernstein about the new Jewish high school.

JCHS officials, who released news of the gift this week, admit the fund-raising and recruitment tasks ahead of them are both ambitious and challenging.

"I think that's going to be a big challenge, but I think it'll be a challenge the community is ready to step up to the plate for," said Noah Alper, the school's president. "Like most capital campaigns, there's a donor pyramid. There'll be a few lead donors and that'll cascade down to the $5 and $10 stuff."

JCHS opens Monday with an incoming class of 21 freshmen on the grounds of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. The school, which will add an additional grade in each of its first four years, hopes to relocate to the San Francisco campus by fall of 2002. The podiatry college is set to vacate the premises by Sept. 1 and will move to Touro University in Vallejo.

The campus houses several buildings: a multi-wing hospital, a college building and a parking garage. The campus structures were built between the 1920s and 1970s, according to Bill Bondy, the JCHS architect. Bondy, who has worked on high school facilities intended to accommodate anywhere from 200 to 2,000 students, says JCHS' campus could easily fit 1,000 students.

Larry Fischer, JCHS head of school, said the school's maximum enrollment would be closer to 400.

JCHS will initially move into only the 62,000-square-foot, two-story college building, which was erected in 1974. Bernstein said the building needs fixing up before the students arrive, but further renovations to other campus structures will depend upon the success of JCHS' fund-raising drive. Although the school is required to come up with $20 million to obtain the site's deed, the capital campaign's target is $40 million in five years, which would help finance future additions and improvements.

Located a stone's throw from Geary Street, the Western Addition location is a convenient middle point for students from the North Bay, East Bay and San Francisco, JCHS officials say. Bus service will be provided from the East Bay and Marin.

"We're delighted," said Fischer. "This spot is a good location [with respect to] both bridges and we hope to draw from the three areas."

In addition to purchasing a permanent site for the school, Keren Keshet also has agreed to pay two years' tuition for each of JCHS' first three classes. The 2-year-old foundation has never made such a significant contribution to a Jewish high school before. The foundation views funding the high school as a pilot project. If JCHS meets the challenge, Keren Keshet might be open to aiding other such schools.

"We'll see how San Francisco rises to the occasion," said Bernstein. "We don't see the high school as just a building with students in it. We see it as an opportunity for the next generation of leaders in San Francisco. It's an opportunity to educate the youth so they go on to educate the next generation."

Keren Keshet was established through a bequest from the will of Bernstein's late husband, Zalman, and co-founded by Mem Bernstein and Arthur Fried in 1999.

"What [Bernstein] is doing is being an incredible role model for other communities around the country also trying to start Jewish high schools," said JCHS founder Nancy Zimmerman Pechner. "What she's saying by these actions is [Jewish education] is really important. It's so important I'm going to offer all of this to the students. I hope others follow in her footsteps."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.