New JCF campaign chair sees gut-level solidarity

Right after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Stanford University student Michael Jacobs took a leave of absence to volunteer on a kibbutz near the Lebanese border. He took care of the fishponds for six months.

That kind of devotion to Jewish causes hasn't wavered over the years, as the 46-year-old attorney has just taken on his latest role in the Jewish community: chair of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's 2002 campaign.

And just as Jacobs' commitment to the Jewish state remains solid, he feels that most potential donors will now have heightened sympathy with Israelis, not only because of the intifada but because of the events of last week. He believes they will want to show their solidarity by giving generously.

"I believe people will want to signal a kind of gut-level solidarity with the people of Israel as they go through an incredibly difficult period," said the Sausalito resident.

"In the wake of our own recent experience with terrorism, I believe our community will pull even more closely together."

Jacobs said that he did not think the events of Sept. 11 would adversely affect the campaign. "I believe our contributors will find much of what federation supports to be highly relevant to current concerns," he said.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Jacobs grew up in Marin County, as a member of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael. He and his family, plus his parents, Gerson and Marilyn Jacobs, remain members to this day. Jacobs is married to Ellen Fuerst, and they have two children, Rebecca, 15, and Jonathan, 11.

As a youth, Jacobs attended camps Ramah and Swig, and also visited Israel, which propelled him to return to Israel after the Yom Kippur War.

"Fascinating and fulfilling" were the words he used to describe that experience.

Fascinating because of the political and military developments, and fulfilling because "a lot of the kibbutzniks were still doing military service, and we volunteers felt like we were making a contribution," he said.

After graduating from Stanford, Jacobs spent four years in the U.S. Foreign Service, serving in Washington and Kingston, Jamaica. Then, he went to Yale Law School, graduating in 1983.

Jacobs is now a partner and the co-head of the intellectual property group at the firm Morrison & Foerster in San Francisco.

His involvement with the San Francisco Jewish community began when he was recruited to be on the board of the Jewish Community Relations Council by Rabbi Doug Kahn, the executive director, who was a friend from Camp Swig.

That led to several JCRC offices, such as chair of the Soviet Jewry and Middle East strategy committees, and then chair of the JCRC.

Then he began getting involved in the JCF, joining the Kohn Fund advisory committee and the committee that oversees the area's Hillels. He also joined the Stanford Hillel board and served as chair of the S.F.-based Israel Center.

While on the federation board for only a year, when John Goldman, JCF president, asked him to chair this year's campaign, he couldn't refuse.

As campaign chair, Jacobs says his main mission is "to work closely with other leaders of the campaign to make the campaign successful and to engender enthusiasm among the community for what federation does."

It shouldn't be too difficult, Jacobs believes, because "I'm personally very excited about what federation does and where it's headed."

And where is that?

Jacobs sees the JCF as working more closely with its beneficiary agencies and making itself more accessible to its donors. It will also be strengthening its younger leadership as well as its relationships with other elements of the community.

Spending years involved in its beneficiary agencies, Jacobs said, "I'm a big believer in federation because I think our history illustrates that we need that leadership, and we need that centripetal force."

But most crucially, Jacobs believes, the federation's role is in "strengthening community and leading the community."

This year could prove to be a tricky one for the campaign, because of the downturn in the economy, Jacobs said. But it could have both positive and negative effects.

While some donors may be unable to sustain the level they gave in prior years, the state of the economy should be "a reminder to all of us about how important the social safety net provided by Jewish agencies can be. And so I expect that those who remain in positive circumstances will be very receptive to federation's message."

Furthermore, Jacobs said he had a tough act to follow, in that his predecessor David Steirman "grew the campaign even as the economy was stalling. We have our work cut out for ourselves in matching last year's performance."

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."