Sam Salkin resigns as JCF head search for replacement begins

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In a surprise move, Sam Salkin, chief executive officer of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, announced his resignation, effective Friday, Feb. 27, ending his tenure after a little more than three years in the top post.

“There’s never a good time,” explained Salkin, 53, in an interview on Thursday, Feb. 5, shortly after he announced his departure. “But the [recently adopted JCF] business plan created a road map for the future and created a juncture that said to me this was a logical point to think about making a change.”

Phyllis Cook, the federation associate executive director and head of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund, will step in as interim chief executive officer. A nationwide search for a new chief executive officer has already begun, with Richard Rosenberg chairing the search committee.

“We will miss Sam,” says JCF President Adele Corvin, “but we will do our best to find someone with the same integrity, love of Judaism and capacity to work with our donors and agencies to keep our federation mission positive.”

The search may take awhile. Filling a high-profile community post has grown increasingly tough in recent years, according to those who have held such positions.

“It’s a tremendously time-demanding job,” says Rabbi Brian Lurie, who served as executive director of JCF for 18 years. “You have to be out in the community. When I began at federation, I went out eight days a week.”

While the rigors haven’t changed much since Lurie’s administration began in the 1980s, he says other aspects of the job have evolved, and may make the task of the search committee even harder. Today the JCF is not the sole organization engaged in raising money for local Jewish institutions — and is now in the position of competing for dollars.

“During my tenure, everything was centralized,” he says. “Federation was the fund-raiser for all the agencies. Today fund-raising may go through the federation processes, but much is done by the agencies themselves. When we did it, it was easier to control the process. Now, federation has to work a lot harder putting its arms around the whole Jewish community.”

Lurie believes Salkin has left the Jewish community in better shape than he found it.

“It was underdeveloped from a structural point of view,” he says, looking back. “We had an outstanding hospital, a Jewish family agency, a home for the aged and that’s it. Now, we have very strong agencies, the day school movement has grown, a new JCC and a high school that is the pride of the Jewish community.”

Salkin, who previously served as president of Peet’s Coffee and the upscale gardening company Smith & Hawken, as well as COO of the JCF back in 1997, is proud of his accomplishments. He cited JCF’s improved relationships with its beneficiary agencies, synagogues and donors.

“There’s great vitality and engagement there,” he says, “and behind the scenes, our finances and internal systems have been greatly strengthened. Also, we made improvements in how our community engages with and supports Jewish needs in Israel and overseas.”

Corvin concurs. “Sam has been responsible for bringing about a complete transparency in our financial operations,” she says. “His involvement in our Israel and overseas committee, his many trips to Israel, have strengthened our relationships there. Sam is leaving federation in very good shape.”

So what challenges does Salkin expect his successor to face? “The constant process of change,” he says. “Federation needs to change, in some cases in advance of the evolving needs of the community. The business plan suggests a dramatic change in how we raise funds, so that the campaign can enjoy continuous growth.”

Salkin anticipates moving back into private industry, but he says he will not be leaving the Jewish community behind.

“This is my community. I came to serve it in particularly challenging times. We’ve addressed those challenges, and I’m very optimistic about the future. The opportunity to work with so many capable people committed to Jewish life and the enhancement of the community has been a marvelous experience.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.