The art of giving

Like kids in a candy store.

That’s how Koret Foundation President Tad Taube felt 25 years ago on that day the Koret Foundation was born.

“We thought, ‘Isn’t it wonderful we can give away all this money?” Taube recalled. “Of course, at that point we didn’t have a clue about the real process.”

They didn’t remain clueless for long. A quarter-century later, the Koret Foundation “brand” is among the most ubiquitous in modern philanthropy, its imprimatur everywhere in art, culture, education and Jewish life throughout the Bay Area, the country and Israel.

Since its founding in 1979, the Koret Foundation has given nearly $280 million to various charitable endeavors, including local Jewish community centers, camps and day schools, top regional universities, museums and a host of cultural organizations, Jewish and non-Jewish. And that doesn’t even count tens of millions of dollars donated to Israel-based projects.

Since 1986, Koret has given more than $15 million to the San Francisco, East Bay and San Jose Jewish federations, making the foundation among the most generous donors to all three.

And with several hundred million dollars left in the kitty, there’s still a lot of giving to do.

“We were the first private Jewish foundation [in the Bay Area],” said Sandy Edwards, Koret chief operating officer, from her office high above Market Street in downtown San Francisco. After 18 years with the foundation, “I’m still so happy to be here. We do so many wonderful things.”

This 25th anniversary is a good excuse to do a few more wonderful things for the community. “It’s a big deal for us,” said Taube. “We have a whole host of events throughout the week.”

Among those, free admission on Sunday, May 9, to 13 popular Bay Area museums and recreational facilities, courtesy of the Koret Foundation, including the Oakland Zoo, the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley and San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum and Museum of Modern Art. The only thing visitors have to do on Sunday is show up and pass through the turnstiles.

This creative way of celebrating shows how far the foundation has come since its early days, according to Edwards. “We learned how to make a difference,” she said. “Now we target our funding and have more impact on the community.”

Among Taube and Edwards’ proudest achievements are Koret initiatives supporting Israel, Jewish life and culture, and Bay Area community development. Perhaps the best known, the Koret Jewish Book Awards, annually honors fiction and nonfiction on Jewish themes.

The book awards may be Koret’s most mediagenic project, but among the highest impact is the Koret Synagogue Initiative, now wrapping up a 10-year mission to expand the role of the synagogue in Jewish life.

Did it work? Edwards reports that one of the early recipients, Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, grew from 750 families to 1,350 by the end of the program, with much of that growth linked directly to the Koret program.

“With Koret money, they brought in a community organizer,” said Edwards. “They launched an adult learning program and a Shabbaton. It became a model for national programs.”

So did Koret’s Israel Teen Trip program. It became the prototype for the enormously successful Birthright Israel years later.

The Koret Israel Economic Development Fund and Israel Emergency Fund have earmarked millions of dollars for the Jewish state. “We focus on survival issues,” said Taube. “We’re probably the biggest player in the world in terms of supporting the Israeli economy through philanthropic dollars. We guaranteed more than $60 million in loans to help businesses under terrible stress.”

The Koret Education Initiative did for public schools what the Synagogue Initiative did for religious life, according to Taube. Under its auspices, the Koret Education Task Force was formed. “The task force studies K-12 education, what works, what doesn’t and what changes might make a difference. For the first time a nonpolitically-oriented group honestly addressed the problem.”

Taube says the staff and board are proactive, anticipating community needs and jumping all over them.

“We don’t spend a lot of energy with what I call mail-slot philanthropy,” he emphasized, “or ’20 requests from 20 agencies, pick five and fund them.’ Instead, we try hard to identify needs and then design programs that effect change in those areas.”

Taube attributes much of the organization’s style to its late founders, Joe and Stephanie Koret.

Immigrants from Eastern Europe, the two married in 1924 and within a decade launched Koret of California, a homegrown clothing company. In the early days, Stephanie drew the designs while Joe ran the shmata business out of the trunk of his car.

Taube’s personal connection with the Koret family goes back a long way. “Jack and Stephanie were in a business venture with my father in the late ’40s,” he recalled. “My first recollections of them were the times they would visit our home in L.A. when I was a teen.”

Taube went on to attend Stanford University and build his own highly successful real estate business. The Korets went on to change the world, developing a how-did-we-ever-live-without-it innovation: Koratron or permanent press. By helping people throw away their irons, the Korets became enormously wealthy.

In the mid-1960s, Koret of California mounted a public stock offering, which involved the sale of the Korets’ personal holdings. “It brought them to a significant liquid position,” said Taube, “and caused them to think about how to reinvest that money.”

That brought them back in touch with Taube. He helped the renamed Koracorp develop a lucrative real estate portfolio, to the point where the company’s equity in real estate was even greater than the clothing division. “The tail started wagging the dog,” Taube said.

In 1979, the year after Stephanie Koret’s death, Koracorp merged with Levi Strauss & Co. and the Koret Foundation was established.

“Joe elected to waive his right to [Stephanie’s] half and allow the money to pass through to the Koret Foundation,” said Taube. “He liked the idea. It gave him an opportunity to do something he hadn’t been able to do before: Be philanthropic.”

In the preceding years, Taube had joined the Koret family business, helping to steer it through rough financial waters in the 1970s. Tad Taube assumed the presidency of the foundation. Joe remarried sometime after Stephanie’s death, and upon his death in 1983, his wife Susan Koret became board chair.

While it has far exceeded the federal requirement to spend annually five percent of its assets, the Koret Foundation is in no danger of giving away the store anytime soon. Taube says he and his colleagues will be around a long time, further developing their own brand of smart philanthropy.

“I hear this omnibus comment, ‘I want to give something back.’ Well, you can give back and it may not do anything. I have a huge measure of satisfaction because so much of what we do has been instrumental in creating positive changes in so many ways.”

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.