The life &mdash and death &mdash of Homewood Terrace

“Don’t bother looking for it. It’s not there anymore.”

That’s the way so many nostalgic discussions reach their denouement. Don’t bother looking for the old Jewish neighborhood in the Fillmore. Don’t bother looking for old Beth Israel. And certainly don’t bother looking for San Francisco’s Homewood Terrace, the former Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum.

It’s not there anymore.

The grandiose building where hundreds of Jewish orphans or children of impoverished and/or broken homes ate, slept and (depending upon whether you were a girl or a boy) learned home economics or woodworking is a distant memory. Many of the Victorian mansions dotting the skyline behind crinkled, 95-year-old team photos from the PHOA baseball or basketball squads as they posed on the Alamo Square steps are still there. But the orphanage itself has given way to an auto body shop and some apartment flats.

The 13-acre site in San Francisco’s Ingleside district the orphanage moved to in 1921 is gone, too. At the time, it was a revolutionary concept: Take the children out of a drab, institutional setting in which they’re virtually stacked on top of one another and set them up in cottages sprinkled amid a vast eucalyptus grove (while changing the institution’s name to the pleasant-to-the-ear Homewood Terrace instead of the stigmatizing orphan asylum).

But that’s not there anymore, either, and with even the eucalyptus forest swallowed up by condos and shopping centers, you wouldn’t know it ever was.

But the legacy of Homewood Terrace, which closed for good in 1984, lives on via the children it served. Alums now dot the Bay Area, nation and world and range in age from 30-somethings to 90-somethings. To be sure, there were some Horatio Alger success stories — a former resident named Reuben R. Fogel bequeathed the fantastic sum of $1 million to the orphanage in the 1920s, and San Francisco nonagenarian David Goldstein’s happy memories spurred the recent funding of a scholarship in his name with the Jewish Family and Children’s Services.

“It was a good place to be,” recalled Eda Pell.

During and after the Holocaust, “wartime orphans” straight from Europe with nary a word of English called Homewood home. Pell, now a 78-year-old resident of San Rafael, was one of them.

“I think it was a very normal life. We went to regular school, we went to football games, we used to play basketball and volleyball.”

Some wartime orphans were reunited with their parents. Pell never was. Instead, she and her sister rented a flat in the city. Eda went to secretarial school and she’s been happily married to the same man since age 24.

In the earlier decades of the last century, many down-on-their-luck Jewish families opted to place their children at Homewood Terrace, maintained regular contact with them and took them home when family fortunes took a turn for the livable. But in the last half of the century, most of the children at the institution were the products of troubled — if not broken — homes. And that’s why the decision to shut Homewood down 22 years ago was so painful and difficult.

Randie Bencanann is one of the co-directors of the JFCS’ Adoption Connection. But from 1979 to 1984 she was a social worker at Homewood Terrace. Perhaps more so than anyone else in the Jewish community, Bencanann was on the front lines for a transformation in the ethos of Jewish social service providers — a transformation that, in the end, doomed Homewood Terrace and led to great success in Bencanann’s current task of facilitating newborn adoptions.

In 1977 Homewood merged with the Jewish Family Service, creating today’s Jewish Family and Children’s Services. A dozen years before that time, Homewood had sold off its vast campus in the Ingleside and instead purchased half a dozen homes in San Francisco’s Richmond District, which housed around 40 kids.

You can still see the ledger at JFCS headquarters demarking the contributions of San Francisco’s 19th-century Jewish elites to the orphanage, and, up to the mid-’50s, private donations kept Homewood running. But by the heart of the Eisenhower years, Homewood had ceased being an ostensibly Jewish organization; it accepted state funds and the vast majority of its children were soon non-Jews.

Incidentally, Bencanann notes that by that time there was already a dearth of Jewish children in need of foster care: Jews had, by and large, grown financially successful enough for families to stay together (social services instituted during the New Deal didn’t hurt) and, in most cases, Jewish families usually had relatives or others who could lend a hand raising children in dire circumstances.

When Homewood merged with the JFS in ’77, it was financially solvent. But the disproportionate cost of caring extensively for 37 almost exclusively non-Jewish kids at a time when the JFCS’ caseload had swelled to more than 10,000 individuals was all too apparent. The writing was on the wall for Homewood.

Of the 37 children in Homewood when it shut down in ’84, 25 were placed in other group homes. Some went back to their families and others “aged out” and went God knows where.

Instead of costly and labor-intensive residential care for extremely emotionally damaged adolescents, the JFCS transformed its operation into one equipped to step in early in a child’s life for preventative care. The organization now puts its money into therapy and services for at-risk kids and families in an effort to keep them out of the system; every effort is made to keep families together rather than surrender children to an institutional setting.

“Any psychiatrist or behavioral scientist will tell you that’s where you need to put your money,” said Bencanann. “If you don’t get that, you’re constantly making up for it.”

In utilitarian terms, the decision to use Homewood’s money to serve many more children and families was a solid one. But emotionally, it came with a price. Children in an institutional setting are far more vulnerable than those hailing from a relatively normal family situation. Even young adults who enjoyed exquisite childhoods and have framed bachelor’s degrees on the walls are availing themselves of their parents’ guest rooms these days with increasing frequency. Kids who grew up in group homes or with foster families don’t have that luxury.

“I worked with a young man, let’s say his name was Tom. He was a smart kid and I worked with him and he got into UCLA. And then he just sort of disappeared,” recalled Bencanann.

“With a lot of supports he could be propped up to get into college, but once he was there and he lost contact with everybody, he just faded away. I don’t know what happened to him and I don’t have a good feeling about it.”

And Tom was one of the best and brightest.

Perhaps saddest of all is that a child, who 50 years ago might have been a prime candidate for Homewood Terrace, has far fewer options today.

Troubled young people’s needs “are not being met in the way they should be. There are very few services for them,” said Bencanann.

“You speak to anybody and they’ll tell you there’s a real dearth of adolescent services in the Bay Area.”

Bencanann stresses that she feels Homewood was a “really fine institution that served the Jewish community well.” But in a society that allocates limited resources to care for its most needy, narrowly focused entities such as Homewood lost out to programs and practices that, when it came down to it, allowed JFCS to get more bang for its buck. On many levels, shutting down Homewood was a good decision, if not the only decision. But that didn’t make it easier to explain to the 37 kids who lost out in 1984.

So don’t bother looking for Homewood Terrace. Because it’s not there anymore.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.