Joseph Zatkin, former federation president and philanthropist

Before meeting Joseph Zatkin nearly 15 years ago, Rob Ruby had heard Zatkin was a “giant in the Jewish community.” Turns out, Ruby said, that wasn’t an exaggeration.

 “Joe completely internalized the importance of commitment to Israel and the Jewish community more than anyone I’ve ever known,” said Ruby, president of the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay. “He just wanted us to get it right, and he never lost that.”

Joseph Zatkin

Zatkin — a San Francisco native, passionate Zionist and former federation president — died Feb. 4. He was 89 years old.

A longtime member of Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, Zatkin took on leadership roles in several Bay Area Jewish organizations, including as synagogue president, board member at Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito and, during his 60-plus years with the federation, campaign chair and president of the Jewish Community Foundation.

“He was a person who liked to achieve goals and see improvements made,” said his son, Steve Zatkin. “The notion of tikkun olam was important to him, and there’s an aspect of that in working with Jewish communal organizations to make them better.”

Two years ago, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s Israel Center honored Zatkin with an “Israel in Our Hearts” award; in 1997 he was recognized for his work with the East Bay federation, where he was president from 1973 to 1975.

While serving in that post, he made three trips to Israel, one during the Yom Kippur War. His devotion to Israel eventually led to the regional presidency of the Jewish National Fund from 1982 to 1986, during which the organization raised a record sum of money.

“Even in his older years, he liked to talk about what good fundraising involved,” Steve Zatkin said. “He always said you have to be personally committed to the cause to be a good fundraiser.”

Born in 1919 to Russian immigrants in San Francisco, Zatkin grew up amid hardship, living in a Jewish orphanage when his widowed mother couldn’t support him. At 13, Zatkin was the only one of his siblings to celebrate his bar mitzvah. With no money for college, he got his first job in 1937, working as a clerk with an insurance company. 

His involvement with Jewish organizations developed soon after, along with his business career. He became president of the local AZA and met his wife, Vera, at a B’nai B’rith picnic. In May 1942, the pair eloped in Torino, Italy.

After World War II, Zatkin and his wife joined Temple Beth Abraham and the federation. Becoming an active Jew was important to Zatkin, whose support for the community stemmed mostly from gratitude, according to his son

“My dad never forgot the Jewish community that supported him and his family when they were in need,” he said. “He felt he owed the community, so he spent his whole life doing community service.”

Zatkin also was a successful entrepreneur, launching a soft-drink business and then Atwood Ltd., a retail import company he later sold to Pier 1 Imports. He concluded his career as a commercial real estate developer in the East Bay. At age 60, Zatkin went back to school, graduating with a degree in philosophy from Cal State Hayward.

Later in life, he was happiest engaging friends in political conversation and spending time with his three grandchildren and one great-grandchild. He attended Shabbat services on occasion, but Zatkin always found a way to maintain a presence at Temple Beth Abraham, albeit behind the scenes, Rabbi Mark Bloom said.

“He walked into my office on my first day and started giving me advice,” Bloom recalled, noting the Zatkins are the only four-generation family at the synagogue. “He was a self-appointed adviser, cared so much and so deeply, and was so smart in life.” 

Zatkin is survived by wife Vera, son Steve Zatkin, daughter Cheryl Zatkin-Steres, grandchildren Michael, Joshua and Rachel, and great-grandson Jacob. A service was held Feb. 9 at Temple Beth Abraham. Donations can be sent to Temple Beth Abraham, 327 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland, CA 94610 or the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay, 300 Grand Ave., Oakland, CA 94610.