Chapman memorial award goes to namesakes longtime friend

Joelle Steefel pulls her shiny silver sedan into a parking spot in front of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation building in downtown San Francisco. The sign on the parking meter very clearly says, in bright red text, “NO PASSENGER PARKING, 11 to 3.”

It is 11:30 on a Monday morning.

“Oh, it’s fine, they know my car — I’m here that often,” she says, exiting the car and greeting the doorman with a grin.

Steefel, a veteran federation volunteer, will be honored for this commitment at the federation’s Power of One dinner. She is being given the Judith Chapman Memorial Women’s Leadership Award, which since 1999 has honored one woman each year who has demonstrated sustained volunteer leadership, and who values her Jewish identity and the importance of tzedakah in her life.

“Joelle embodies the whole spirit of this award,” said Karen Katz, who worked with Steefel during a two-year mentorship program Steefel co-founded, called Women in Leadership.

Katz, a local businesswoman, said she gained so much from the experience that she’s now trying to recreate it for a second group of women.

Sunny Kaplan, a former Chapman recipient and friend of Steefel’s, said Katz’s reaction to the program is exactly what everyone hoped for, and what many felt confident that Steefel could facilitate.

“Joelle is very focused and an excellent mentor,” Kaplan said. “She seems to inspire people to get the job done. And if someone is discouraged, she knows how to ask the questions that will get us moving again.

“I think she has played a remarkable role behind the scenes because she doesn’t like to be up front. She always wants to use the plural ‘we,’ even though oftentimes most of us know it’s really ‘me’ and ‘I,'” Kaplan added.

Steefel credits her grandfather and mother with setting a precedent of tikkun olam in her household. She grew up in San Francisco’s Richmond district, and lived in Salt Lake City for about 20 years after college, which she said was a great training ground for social action.

The Salt Lake Jewish community was small and “if you wanted something done you had to do it yourself,” she said. She worked with numerous Jewish agencies there, as well as March of Dimes, for which she created an initiative to help homeless, pregnant women get off the streets and into housing and the doctor’s office.

“There are a lot of problems in the world. But I think we can’t worry so much about everything, and instead think of what small way we can make a difference and focus on that,” she said.

Steefel has worked as a television news writer and a certified personal development coach (which means she coaches people through life transitions). She has served as president of the S.F.-based federation’s Women’s Alliance, and currently serves on boards for United Jewish Communities, the S.F. Jewish Community Center and the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at U.C. San Francisco.

The award carries particular significance for Steefel, who was a childhood friend of the award’s namesake, Judith Chapman. They remained close as adults and together founded the Volunteer Placement Project, now known as Jewish Community Information and Referral.

Steefel’s eyes get shiny when she recalls her old friend; she blinks away tears as she stares out her kitchen window that looks out onto a foggy San Francisco Bay.

“I never, ever thought I’d measure up to all she exemplified,” Steefel says. “But my friends have said, ‘Judith would approve.'”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.