Retiring head of Sinai chapel praised for comforting spirit

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After 23 years at the helm of a 106-year-old San Francisco funeral home, Gene Kaufman is retiring as Sinai Memorial Chapel’s executive director.

“Gene embodies the values of Sinai,” said Sam Salkin, the home’s new executive director. He defined those as “compassionate care for the deceased and their family, a commitment to Jewish tradition, flexibility around changing community norms, a responsiveness to the needs of the indigent and a commitment to tzedakah.”

This is perhaps why Sinai’s board of directors hired Kaufman 23 years ago, despite the fact he had no experience working in the industry.

“We could see he was intelligent, and had a good heart … and we felt he could learn the business,” said Milton Jacobs, Sinai’s board president in 1987, the year Kaufman was appointed to be the agency’s director.

When Jacobs offered the job, Kaufman was surprised.

“I was stunned, speechless,” recalled Kaufman, whose last day will be Aug. 31. “I had never considered the work because I had no experience but … I accepted because I saw it as an opportunity to work with people who were in a deep emotional state and needed help.”

Gene Kaufman will retire as Sinai Memorial Chapel’s executive director on Aug. 31. photo/stacey palevsky

As Sinai’s director, Kaufman has overseen the staff that makes all the arrangements for an average of 15 funerals per week. They do everything from “pre-need” funeral arrangements to Jewish end-of-life rituals such as taharah (ritual washing of the body) and shmira (guarding the body).

“The bottom line is that I have no recollection of any family or individual ever saying they weren’t treated properly, appropriately and with respect — and Gene has set that tone,” Jacobs said.

Kaufman, 66, has deep roots in San Francisco. He was born at Mount Zion Hospital, located across the street from Sinai. He grew up in the Richmond District and attended Congregation Beth Sholom, which is where he met his wife, Susan. They were both under 16 on their first date; Kaufman’s father drove.

Kaufman attended Lowell High School and then went to U.C. Berkeley and San Francisco State University. He earned a law degree from Golden Gate University but didn’t practice, instead working as a trust officer at Crocker Bank.

But after volunteering with the Jewish Community Relations Council, he switched gears in 1976, forgoing the corporate world for the Jewish one.

“JCRC opened my eyes up to the importance of communal service,” Kaufman said.

He spent 11 years working for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, including three when he started and led the agency’s Marin office.

He has since earned a certificate in Jewish communal service from Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, which several years ago granted him an honorary doctorate for his commitment to Jewish communal work.

One of his most challenging experiences at Sinai was in 1988 when the cemetery workers in Colma went on strike, and Sinai was unable to offer burial service at Eternal Home for nearly two months.

“It was so difficult,” Kaufman recalled. “We were able to hold bodies here but at that time we had to embalm them for health and safety reasons, even though it wasn’t in accordance with Jewish law. It was tense on a daily basis. Thankfully it hasn’t happened again since then.”

Kaufman has overseen much growth at Sinai during his tenure.

He presided over a large remodel of the San Francisco facility; the addition of two satellite buildings, in Lafayette and Redwood City; the addition of a cemetery, Gan Shalom, Contra Costa County’s first all-Jewish cemetery; and the startup of a bereavement support program called NextSteps.

“This kind of program is not done anywhere else in the country by a Jewish funeral home,” Kaufman said. NextSteps “is one of my proudest accomplishments.”

When Kaufman joined the 15-member staff of Sinai in 1987, the nonprofit funeral home had one office in San Francisco and one cemetery in Colma. Today, 30 people work for Sinai, and only two have been there longer than Kaufman.

“The mitzvah of comforting the mourner is so important in our Jewish tradition,” said Rabbi Martin Weiner, rabbi emeritus of Sherith Israel who taught Kaufman at Beth Sholom’s Sunday school. “I have profound respect for Gene’s caring and comforting spirit, which has guided Sinai chapel for all these years.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.