New director brings a wee bit o Scotland to JCCSF

Officials at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco say approximately 50,000 first-time visitors walk through the center’s doors every year.

Barry Finestone, the newly appointed executive director of the JCCSF, wants to make those thousands feel like they’re one of just a few.

“It goes back to the notion of customer service,” Finestone, 43, said last week in his office, a sparsely decorated space with a few family photos on a bookcase and a framed poster of Chicago’s Wrigley Field on the wall. “It’s very important to me that the people who utilize this institution don’t just see it as a commodity. We’re on the journey of taking our people from consumer to advocate.”

A native of Scotland, Finestone officially took up the position June 3, replacing Judith Edelson, who had served as interim executive director since March 2009.

Barry Finestone

Though Finestone has been on the job just a few weeks, he’s already brainstormed a number of ways to improve the JCCSF, which is the second largest stand-alone JCC in the country (behind only the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan). Taking the JCCSF from “great to greater” is his early rallying cry.

“The most exciting thing is that nobody seems content with what we have,” Finestone said. “We’re doing really good stuff here, but I like to say ‘the biggest room in the world’ is the room for improvement. Whether it’s our early childhood program, fitness center or Russian émigré program, we’re going to continue to strengthen that core.”

In addition to walking the corridors and engaging with both visitors and staff, Finestone is focusing on building the brand of the JCCSF beyond its California Street location.

Despite recent economic woes in the local Jewish community, JCCSF membership has remained relatively unscathed, as evidenced by the 12,000 fitness center members. But Finestone said he’s even more excited when a nonmember walks through the door.

To keep that trend going, Finestone says he plans to use the “power of the personal invitation” — in addition to e-mail blasts, the JCCSF website and traditional advertising — to spread the word to specific audiences about upcoming programs they might be interested in.

“We’re actually taking it down to that level where we mine our database and call people,” said Finestone, adding, “For me, it’s not a numbers game. It’s a participation game.”

Finestone is a native of Glasgow, Scotland, where he grew up in a vibrant Jewish community and then attended Jordanhill College of Education. After graduating in 1990 with a bachelor’s degree in business and education, Finestone, then 22, strayed from the career path most of his fellow graduates were following: going after jobs in London.

Instead, he headed to Chicago.

Finestone then began what would be a 10-year stint with Hadassah and its Zionist youth movement, Young Judaea. He first ran the organization’s summer camp for the Midwest region, and then went on to New York to become the director of camping. In June 1998, he was appointed Young Judaea’s national associate director.

The next stop for Finestone was Cincinnati, where he served for five years as executive director of Isaac M. Wise Temple, one of the largest synagogues in the country. He took a five-year departure from the Jewish professional world to operate a local flower business and then Sweets in Bloom, a candy bouquet company.

About 10 months ago, Finestone received a call from a search firm about the JCCSF’s executive director position.

“It was described to me as one of the top five Jewish jobs in the country,” Finestone said. “The appeal of the job is that I get to work for the agency both internally and externally. I am the professional leader of this institution, and I also get to see what happens on a daily basis. There are very few people who can say that about their jobs.”

As a youth in Scotland, Finestone attended Jewish day school and played soccer at Maccabi GB, Glasgow’s version of a Jewish community center. Right about the time he was born, the Jewish community in Glasgow had grown to about 15,000, but then it dwindled to about 6,000. “I knew all the Jewish girls in Scotland,” he joked while explaining why he left.

He and his wife, Ellen, a Detroit native, and their three children, Gabrielle, 10, Ethan, 8, and Mia, 6, settled in San Rafael just a few weeks ago. The two oldest will attend Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Rafael; the youngest will go to the Marin JCC Early Childhood Education Center.

Finestone admitted his new position has been keeping him quite busy, but he’s still making time with his family to explore the Bay Area. And as an avid Chicago Cubs fan, Finestone will most likely be rooting for his Cubbies when they visit AT&T Park in San Francisco next month.

In the meantime, Finestone says he will work tirelessly to be inclusive and make the JCCSF a place where San Francisco’s Jews and non-Jews “meet and mingle.”

“We will strive to be the Jewish community center,” he said. “We can do that because we’re not affiliated. We’re for everybody.”