Catalyst for change

The board of the Koret Foundation had a grand idea for commemorating its 25th anniversary: a promotional book on its accomplishments.

So the San Francisco foundation commissioned a historian to write one. But it wasn’t just any historian; it was one who was intimately involved with the foundation: Stephen Mark Dobbs, a former professor at San Francisco State University, who once served as Koret’s executive director and CEO.

Dobbs was then put in the strange position of writing about his tenure at the foundation in third person for the book, “The Koret Foundation: 25 Years as a Catalyst for Positive Change.”

“On the one hand, you can’t avoid drawing attention to yourself when you write about the life of an organization in which you played a part and care so much about and have a stake,” Dobbs said. “But on the other hand, it is strange to write about yourself in third person. I wasn’t writing a memoir or an account of my experience, I was commissioned by the board to write about their history.”

As an insider, Dobbs estimates that he came to the task with about 20 percent of the needed information already under his belt. “I had a good head start,” he said. Before Dobbs became CEO, he served as a Koret consultant, conducting a study that helped inform some of its grant-making activity.

Dobbs was drawn to the project for a number of reasons, including that fact that, except for perhaps a one-page biography of founder Joseph Koret that appeared in an annual report, little had been written about him, certainly not an in-depth story.

Koret was born in Odessa in 1900,but came to America with his family the following year. While he was growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the family often went hungry, and Koret remembered stuffing his shoes with newspaper to help him keep warm.

They moved to San Francisco when Koret was 17, and his father opened a small men’s clothing business, from which he learned “the shmata business.”

He soon married Stephanie Shapiro and the husband-wife team began a clothing business that would later become a major player in sportswear, Koret of California, no longer family owned.

Later, after Koret befriended Tad Taube, he began investing in real estate, which greatly increased his wealth.

After his wife died, Koret married her nurse, Susan, who converted to Judaism. He was married to Susan only for two years before his death in 1982, three years after he began making grants. As a result, the foundation’s most influential years were ahead.

The Koret Foundation has given generously in the Jewish community — from creating Jewish book awards to funding Israel trips to federation and synagogue initiatives. In the general community, it has supported organizations that combat poverty, hunger and homelessness as well as cultural institutions like the Asian Art Museum and the San Francisco Ballet.

Koret “didn’t live long enough to see the full development of the foundation, as he died a couple years after its founding,” Dobbs said. “But his own history gave it direction.”

While the foundation has had its share of difficult moments, including one instance in which several board members almost took each other to court, Dobbs had a free editorial hand to write about it all.

“There was no direction or editing from the board, and I never submitted the manuscript to the board to read,” he said. “They basically left it to me as a professional historian to tell the story.”

In doing the 197-page softcover book, Dobbs became even more aware and impressed by the scope of the foundation’s reach.

“If you look, for example, at the first table of awards and payments, there are almost $270 million in awards,” he said. “I found it staggering to consider how much support has been provided by this one institution.”

In the appendices, he said, the different kinds of initiatives are broken down, as are all the institutions that have received support over the years.

“You realize how connected the Koret Foundation has been with major institutions in the Jewish and general community,” he said. “It’s hard to think of a single Jewish or community organization that has not enjoyed the support of Koret.”

“The Koret Foundation: 25 Years as a Catalyst for Positive Change,” published by Western Jewish History Center of the Judah L. Magnes Museum, is available free through Koret, though supplies are “very limited,” according to a foundation spokesperson.

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."