From the heart: Five shining examples of do-it-yourself philanthropy

In the simplest terms, it is do-it-yourself philanthropy.

With a sum that could be as modest as $5,000, one can establish a donor-advised fund to benefit the cause — or causes — of one’s choice.

The process is a lot easier than one might expect, assures Lisa Gurwitch, executive director of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund, the planned-giving unit of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

“It’s really simple — that’s why it’s so popular,” she says.

Likewise, the Jewish Community Foundation of the Greater East Bay also provides avenues to create what executive director Lisa Tabak calls “a philanthropic checking account.”

“You have your personal checking account and maybe a business checking account. This is your charitable checking account. It’s where your charitable gifts come from.”

A donor-advised fund is “the perfect match between having charitable intent and having a tax-deductible gift, in one sweet move,” says Tabak.

“You make a charitable donation. We manage it. You grow the fund, and when you are ready to make a grant, we send it on your behalf to whatever charity you choose. And whenever you make a contribution, it’s tax deductible.”

Although some endowments are as large as eight figures, more modest givers can still see their names in a foundation’s golden light.

Here are a few shining examples of those who’ve set up funds in the Bay Area.

The inspiration for their generosity comes from varied sources — a rabbi’s nudging a bat mitzvah girl toward charity, a man’s desire to honor the memory of his grandmother, a family tradition of giving.

For Sarah Kahn, it was her rabbi who inspired her to give. For her younger sister Rachel, it was Sarah.

“I don’t recall a specific Sunday school lesson where I learned about giving back to the community, because I know there were quite a few,” says Sarah, 21, who grew up in Danville and was bat mitzvahed at Beth Chaim Congregation there.

“Tzedakah was always a big part of Sunday school,” she says, speaking by phone from Tucson, Ariz., where she’s a nursing student at the University of Arizona. “We would put change in the box each week, and decide as a class at the end of the year where we wanted to donate our money.”

Eight years ago, when Sarah’s bat mitzvah was approaching, Dan Goldblatt, her rabbi, approached her with the suggestion she turn her bat mitzvah money into a charitable endowment.

“Rabbi Dan said his niece took the money she received for her bat mitzvah and instead of spending or saving it, she put it into a trust fund,” she recalls. “He asked if I would be interested in doing that.”

Sarah discussed it with her parents.

It was a relatively easy decision. “A lot of it has to do with being raised to be aware that we are fortunate to have what we have,” she says. “Our teachers instilled in us a caring and generous attitude, and this was new and exciting. My parents explained to me how it would work. It just sounded like a great idea.”

Sarah and her parents established the endowment through the Jewish Community Foundation of the Greater East Bay. “In the invitation to my bat mitzvah, we slipped in a note that said, instead of writing the check out to me, write it out to The Sarah Kahn Bat Mitzvah Fund.”

Once the fund was established, Goldblatt encouraged other Sunday school students to do the same.

Naturally, Rachel stepped forward. Says Sarah, “There was never any question that Rachel would do it, too, and we would do it together.” So after Rachel’s bat mitzvah, the Sarah and Rachel Kahn Bat Mitzvah Fund was born. “I followed in Sarah’s footsteps,” says Rachel, on the phone from U.C. Davis, where she is a freshman. “I mean, what am I going to do with all that money at 13? I’ve always been a big supporter of donating. Ever since I was young, I’d always bring a bag of change whenever I was going to the city to give to the poor.”

Their fund is set up so the sisters can donate to charities together or separately. Among the causes that have grabbed Rachel’s recent attention are Chelsea’s Hope, which funds research on Lafora disease, and Save Darfur, “because it reminds me of the Holocaust,” she says.

Sarah feels a strong pull toward AIDS patients in Africa and St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.

Together, they have sent funds to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, dedicated to protecting marine species and environments.

“The nice thing about it is that it’s not a one-time thing,” Rachel says. “It’s growing, and it’s something we get to do every year for the rest of our lives, to help so many causes.”

Adds Sarah: “Rachel and I are best friends. This is something she and I will always have together.”

Holocaust survivor Charlotte Kaufman craved butter.

But it wasn’t on the menu at the senior facility where Kaufman lived out her last years, until her death in 1984 at age 82.

Her grandson, Alamo resident Jeff Weil, recalls driving to the home to pick up “Mutti,” his nickname for his paternal grandmother, to take her out to dinner. He remembers that wherever they dined, she invariably gorged on bread and butter.

In fact, her life was lacking in many respects, he believed.

One day after visiting Mutti and observing that she and the other residents could use some cheering up, Weil drove to a nearby flower mart. After haggling a little with the owner, he got a deal on all the roses he could transport back to the home, and gave roses to everyone.

But the thing about the home that nagged at Weil the most was the paucity of musical entertainment for its residents, particularly in light of his recollection of childhood visits to Kaufman’s apartment off Geary Boulevard in the Russian community of San Francisco’s Richmond District.

“My grandmother used to play the piano,” says Weil, 55, a commercial real estate broker who plays tenor saxophone in an East Bay Dixieland band. “She loved music.”

So around 20 years ago, Weil established and endowed the Charlotte Kaufman Senior Cultural Activities Fund at the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living in Danville.

“I wanted to bring music and theater to the home, and take the residents out to music and theater events,” Weil says. The fund pays for such outings as trips to Concord’s Willows Theatre and San Francisco’s Traveling Jewish Theatre, and brings programs of music, such as those featuring classical pianist Bruce Pratt Jr. and flutist Barbara Siesel, to perform at the Reutlinger facility.

“Our residents thrive on cultural events and entertainment,” says Janice Corran, Reutlinger’s executive director. “Without [the Kaufman Fund] we would not be able to bring in and take our residents out to the highest quality cultural activities.”

Corran notes that Weil is just one of about 20 donors who have designated Reutlinger as a recipient of their donor-advised endowments, intended to fund cultural events as well as classes.

Weil says he is “semi-active” at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland and Walnut Creek’s B’nai Tikvah, where he was bar mitzvahed and confirmed; however, he has found a distinctive way of using his Jewishness to build a bridge between business and charity.

“I was at a Jewish business lunch group that’s been meeting for 30 years in Walnut Creek,” he recalls. “Someone in the group talked about a real estate transaction he did and mentioned that he didn’t use a Jewish broker. I stood up and said, ‘Any business I get through this group, or any Jewish group, or that’s generated from my temple, I will give 25 percent of what I make to the Reutlinger Community.’ “

Weil, who from time to time plays classical clarinet concerts for Reutlinger residents, hopes to turn his Jewish business connections into the bread and butter of his Kaufman Fund endowment, just as he feels that music is the butter on the bread of life.

“When you bring music to seniors, you get smiles,” he says simply. “No matter what condition they’re in, they’re uplifted.”

Sometimes the inspiration, not to mention the impetus, comes from a grandparent. In the case of Los Altos Hills residents George and Dorothy Saxe, it’s two grandparents.

The couple imbued their six grandchildren with an ethic of generosity born of their own philanthropy — and funded by it.

Roughly 10 years ago, the Saxes established a donor-advised endowment through the Jewish Community Endowment Fund of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, designing it to be administered by their six grandchildren.

“My grandparents set up this fund with the direction that we have a certain amount of money that’s not to be spent all at once, but is there to encourage us to be philanthropic,” says David Saxe, the oldest grandchild. “It’s so we can spend time together as a group of cousins and recognize the importance of family and philanthropic goals.”

The grandchildren plan their annual disbursements during yearly family vacations hosted by George, 87, and Dorothy, 82, to places such as Mexico, the Rockies, Alaska and various California resorts. Each year, a different cousin is in charge of moderating the discussion.

David Saxe, 30, works in real estate investment and development in Los Angeles. Aaron, 28, is working on an MBA degree at UCLA, while brother Daniel, 26, co-owns and operates three backpacker hostels in Panama.

Then come 27-year-old twins Dena Maple, who works at a Los Angeles-area Jewish day school, and Rebecca Saliman, who works at Kadima Hebrew Academy in Southern California. The youngest, Shira Saliman, 23, is a student at the University of Chicago, interns at the Illinois Hunger Coalition and works part-time in the Chicago mayor’s office.

“Each year we come up with general topics that we’re interested in,” Maple explains in an e-mail describing a smorgasbord of issues they consider — hunger, homelessness, AIDS, Israel, impoverished kids, international diseases and education.

“Once we narrow down the general topic, whoever is in charge that year talks with a federation employee and gathers a list of organizations that fit the category. Then we research each organization, discuss the pros and cons, and ultimately vote about where we want to give our money.

“Some years, I end up giving money to the organization we chose together, and then also give money to another organization, because it really speaks to me.”

David Saxe describes the process of choosing the year’s charity (or charities) as more of a “guided discussion” than a presentation. “We go around in a circle and discuss the pros and cons.”

One year, when they weren’t able to get together as a group, they made their selections via e-mail, with each cousin ranking five choices. The one that scored highest was selected.

Among the charities they’ve recently funded are Friends of the Children, American Jewish World Service, Uganda Children’s Charity Foundation, UNICEF and the San Francisco Child Abuse Prevention Center.

All the cousins grew up attending Congregation Beth Am, a Reform synagogue in Los Altos Hills.

Maple attributes a great deal of the family philanthropy to their Jewishness.

“To me, giving to others and Judaism are interconnected,” she says. “When I help others, I’m acting in a Jewish manner, regardless of whether the money is going towards other Jews or not.

“My grandparents and parents taught me the importance of giving to others for as long as I can remember. When I was in first grade, I remember I got 50 cents for allowance, and 25 cents of that was for tzedakah.”

Maple also points out that the cousins’ discussions introduce her to new organizations she wouldn’t have known about otherwise.

“I love having the additional money from my philanthropic fund to donate, because I can donate to more organizations, and donate a larger amount of money than I could from just my teacher salary.”

Although the discussions among the cousins usually occur during family holidays, their grandparents, who are well known Bay Area philanthropists, steer clear of the meetings. They are the inspiration, but as David Saxe makes clear, “They don’t want to exert any influence. They want to leave it up to us.”

In the case of Eve Gordon-Ramek, it was an article about a horrifying anti-Semitic attack in France that compelled her to do something more than wring her hands in despair.

“It made me furious,” Gordon-Ramek says over the telephone from her Orinda home, her voice trembling with emotion as she recalls reading in j. about the murder of Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old French Jewish cell phone salesman who was kidnapped, tortured and beaten to death in 2006.

“I was upset about this for three weeks, the same amount of time they tortured him,” Gordon-Ramek says. “But it’s hard to know how to help. I felt that if I had known him, I could have done something for him — maybe send him to Israel.”

It was reported after Halimi’s killing that he had been hoping to immigrate to Israel, but he made it there only in death; his family had his remains interred in Jerusalem.

Gordon-Ramek realized that even though she hadn’t been able to help Halimi while he was alive, she could do something for others like him — young French Jews who were hoping to make aliyah but could not afford to go.

“I love Israel,” Gordon-Ramek says, noting that she’s been there many times, most recently for its 60th anniversary celebration. “I feel that Israel needs young people, and I wanted to help young people go to Israel, where they’re needed and wanted.”

With the assistance of the Jewish Community Foundation of the East Bay, Gordon-Ramek established the Eve Gordon-Ramek Philanthropic Fund in memory of Ilan Halimi. Her endowment provides young French Jews with a one-way plane ticket to Israel, plus six months of rent and pocket money.

After initially endowing the fund, Gordon-Ramek re-endows it annually, although she may replenish it as needed throughout the year, depending on how many people it is supporting at any given time.

“The kids are so deserving,” she says. “They send me the most gorgeous thank-you letters. It really warms my heart.”

Many of the letters recount holiday celebrations, like Yom HaAtzmaut. (“The roads were blocked, there were a lot of people, lights and flags of Israel,” wrote one correspondent. “There was music, people were dancing.”)

Others, such as students preparing for their entrance exams at Technion (where many of the fund recipients hope to matriculate, discuss their studies in commendable English, “We had our first lesson of mathematics two weeks ago … The lessons are very interesting.”)

Gordon-Ramek credits her father, Mayer Goldberg, who died in 1995, with instilling in her a commitment to philanthropy. She still worships at the two synagogues her father attended — Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation and Conservative Temple Beth Abraham — in Oakland, where Gordon-Ramek was born and raised.

After seven years in Danville, for the past two years Gordon-Ramek has lived in Orinda with her husband, Henry Ramek, a survivor of Auschwitz and Treblinka. After he escaped from the latter, Ramek was “a hero doing espionage,” Gordon-Ramek says. After the war, he worked in real estate investments, and founded and owned Oakland Kosher Foods on Grand Avenue for 35 years.

Gordon-Ramek also uses her donor-advised fund to support the local federation, Hadassah, Oakland Hebrew Day School and the Contra Costa Jewish Day School in Lafayette.

However, being able to do something positive to combat anti-Semitism in her own way, with her own philanthropic fund, has given her a singular form of gratification.

“It was a small thing I could do for a big problem,” she says. “It feels good that I can do something for these kids who are so deserving.”

To Len Lehmann, it’s an imperative in Judaism to contribute to your community and to pursue justice.

“We see charitable giving more as a justice issue than a love issue,” says Lehmann, 53, of Palo Alto. Accordingly, the priority of the Lehmann Philanthropic Fund, which is close to 15 years old, is “helping deeply impoverished people,” Lehmann notes.

His endowment sponsors two community centers in Argentina operated by Pro Mujer (“for women”), an organization working to improve the conditions of impoverished women and their families in Latin America, primarily though micro-credit programs.

“We wanted to do something in the area of microfinance,” Lehmann explains. “Latin America is near the U.S., it’s not difficult to travel there, there’s serious poverty and it hasn’t gotten enough attention.”

Before the involvement in Argentina, Lehmann supported Pro Mujer in Bolivia and Nicaragua. It provides medical referrals, business and family education and other resources, in addition to small business loans to women, “so women are empowered and productive,” he says.

Hence the community centers.

“It’s relatively easy to get capital to lend,” Lehmann says, “but more difficult to get seed money to open neighborhood centers where people can take classes and get medical referrals.”

His daughter, Deborah, 20, a journalist and undergraduate at Brown University, is deeply involved in the project. She spent time over the summer researching a neighboring community center near the two currently sponsored. She and her dad hope to help open several more centers in Argentina, funding about a quarter of the cost of each center.

“After they’re open, they’re self-sustaining,” Lehmann says. “Part of the loan service that comes in goes to support the center, which becomes a leverage point for several hundred women to receive support.”

Lehmann said the S.F.-based Jewish Community Endowment Fund was the perfect vehicle through which to establish his fund. “We wanted to be able to take tax deductions up front before we allocated funds, and to spread the good name of the Jewish community through the fund.”

Lehmann also uses his fund to support Palo Alto’s Congregation Kol Emeth, the Conservative synagogue where Lehmann worships, along with groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, Oxfam, Peace Action and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Although overseas projects can be “difficult to administer,” Lehmann observes, “dollars go a lot further than they do here.” Some of his fund’s dollars are going as far as India, supporting about 10 percent of the operating expenses of a K-12 school that serves 500 disadvantaged children in Jaipur.

“The cost to educate one student for a year is $30,” Lehman says. “But the average income is $300 a year. Many children don’t go to school, because the parents can’t afford that luxury. When the parents have to choose which child to send to school, $30 can make a profound impact.”

Lehmann’s approach mixes compassion with practicality, limiting the amount of his fund’s support in favor of “a strong buy-in from the local community.”

“We view all of this as an investment in our social future,” Lehmann sums up. “We want to be smart investors.”

cover design | cathleen maclearie