Caring deeply helps carry Gurwitch to top JCEF post

The S.F.-based Jewish Community Endowment Fund’s new executive director isn’t really new. She is Lisa Gurwitch, a 17-year veteran of the endowment.

She replaces Phyllis Cook, who steps down in June after 25 years on the job. Gurwitch, currently the JCEF’s director of gift planning, assumes the senior post July 1.

Gurwitch joined the endowment in 1991. Then, endowment assets totaled around $85 million. Today the figure tops $2 billion.

Her 17-year tenure has “been a great growth opportunity,” Gurwitch said. “I care deeply about Jewish life and enabling everyone in this community to experience the joy of Jewish life.”

Gurwitch came to JCEF after several years working as a real estate attorney. In addition to seeking more meaningful work, she also joined the endowment for the chance to work with Cook.

“I learned more from her than I could have ever imagined,” Gurwitch said. “The first thing she taught me was to listen. Charitable gift planning is about finding out what matters to you and what you want your legacy to be. The only way I can know that is by listening. She taught me that.”

As for changes, Gurwitch wants to expand certain JCEF programs, including a teen philanthropy initiative, which encourages b’nai mitzvah kids to make tzedakah an important part of their lives.

However, she says some things will not change. Key among them: maintaining the trust of donors, whose funds are managed through the endowment, and perpetuating the legacies of deceased donors.

“That’s what an endowment is, a repository for people’s legacies,” she said. “We’re a donor-centered organization that provides really good service.”

A native of Mobile, Ala., Gurwitch grew up in a family that honored Jewish tradition. At different points, her family affiliated with Reform, Conservative and Orthodox synagogues, so she says she is comfortable in any Jewish setting.

At Vanderbilt University, she majored

in economics. She attended George Washington University Law School, going on to practice law in Chicago and San Francisco.

Once at JCEF, she delved into leadership training,

graduating from the United Jewish Communities’ Mandel Executive Development Program and the Wexner Heritage Foundation Leader-ship Program.

A Belvedere resident, Gurwitch and her husband, Martin Fleisher, have three children.

Although some endowment donors can be counted among the Bay Area’s most affluent citizens, Gurwitch insists that charitable giving is something everyone can incorporate into their lives.

“People hear the word ‘endowment’ and they think it’s about only about the very wealthy,” she says, adding that many donors “have led very modest lives. They are people who care about the Jewish

community. They want to give back and this is a way of expressing their legacy. Everybody’s legacy matters.”

As for putting that money to work, last fiscal year the JCEF disbursed more than $285 million in grants, seed projects and emergency funding. Gurwitch says that never could have happened without the people who work with her and for her.

“We have the most remarkable staff. They come in and get excited about what we’re doing.”

Sharing the credit for the endowment’s achievements seems to be a reflex for Gurwitch, who downplays her own role. When asked, Gurwitch describes herself as just a “hard-working girl from Alabama.”

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.