Jesse Feldman, former JCF president, dies at 87

For a man with no children of his own, Jesse Feldman had at least 10 men around the world whom he referred to as his sons.

“He had more surrogate sons than anyone else I know,” said Rabbi Brian Lurie, a past executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, who considers himself one of them. In fact, it was under Feldman’s tenure as JCF president that Lurie was hired as executive director.

Feldman, a longtime resident of San Francisco, died Monday, March 15 at 87.

Born Nov. 30, 1916, in San Mateo, Feldman had a Conservative upbringing. He served in the Navy during World War II, spending more than two years on the USS Saratoga, an aircraft carrier stationed in the Far East. After graduating from Stanford Law School, Feldman became a founding partner in the San Francisco firm Feldman, Waldman and Kline.

Stanford University’s fraternities didn’t accept Jews during the time he attended, he said in an interview for the JCF’s Leadership Oral History Project. It was “a given,” he added, that San Francisco law firms in the 1930s and 1940s wouldn’t hire any Jews as associates.

Feldman married Joan Green, who predeceased him in 1997.

Feldman served as a co-chair of the San Francisco Lawyers Committee for Urban Affairs and received the Award of Merit from the San Francisco Bar Association. He also was a director of the Legal Aid Society, and served for 10 years on the Salvation Army central advisory board.

But most of his spare time was devoted to the Jewish community. In addition to his involvement with the JCF, he was president of the Bay Area United Jewish Community Centers from 1967 to 1969, and a vice president of the Jewish Welfare Board. In 1980 he won the Frank L. Weil Award for distinguished contribution to Jewish community centers, and in 1986 he received the Jewish Welfare Board’s first Community Builders’ Award, a national distinction.

His tenure as president of the JCF, 1973-74, was marked by much disagreement over whether and how much to fund Jewish day schools. Some of the community’s largest givers were opposed to them, believing that Jews were better off receiving a secular education.

“I watched him take out a roomful of people over an allocation for Jewish education,” said Lurie. “Every single person disagreed with him, and I watched him wear down every single person. There was a unanimous vote in favor of what he wanted. He was relentless.”

Phyllis Cook also recalled the controversy over day schools at that time. Feldman kept his cool, said Cook, director of the S.F.-based JCF’s Jewish Community Endowment Fund. “He was a strong and consistent leader with very good judgment.”

Feldman served on the JCF’s overseas committee, on the board of the JCEF and as chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council. He also sat on the Congregation Beth Sholom board in San Francisco.

Lurie said that Feldman was extraordinarily committed to Israel and owned an apartment in Jerusalem, where he and his wife often spent months at a time. When he stopped traveling to Israel, he donated the apartment to the Jewish Welfare Board.

Feldman’s outside interests extended to his car — he drove an old black Lincoln Continental with red leather seats — and his dog, Silver.

In fact, current JCF President Adele Corvin, who knew Feldman since childhood, recalled that he and his wife had trouble disciplining the dog. “It might have been just as well they didn’t have children,” she joked. “Because he could not control this dog; it was a maniac.”

Corvin recalled that Feldman was a mentor for Jewish orphans at the now-defunct Homewood Terrace.

Lurie said when his son Ari was young, Feldman put him on his shoulders, only to have Ari look down, gently rub Feldman’s bald head, and say, “‘Jesse, did it hurt when they pulled it out?’ He just burst out laughing and I burst out laughing,” Lurie said.

In addition to his many “adopted” children, Feldman is survived by his brother, Sanford, of Mill Valley and a nephew.

Contributions can be made to the Jewish Community Federation, 121 Steuart St., S.F., CA, 94105.

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."