Annette Dobbs, S.F. activist and devoted Israel supporter

There are frequent fliers. And then there was Annette Dobbs.

The San Francisco Jewish community act-ivist visited her beloved Israel more than 70 times, demonstrating a fierce devotion to the Jewish state. But Israel wasn’t her only priority.

Dobbs led many organizations, sitting on numerous boards as well as serving a term as president of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

One of the Bay Area’s best-loved Jewish leaders, Annette Dobbs died March 19 in San Francisco. She was 89.

Annette Dobbs in Rishon LeTzion in Israel in 1990.

“She had a gift for reaching people,” said son Stephen Dobbs. “She was a role model for younger women coming along in community organizations.”

He and his siblings coined a nickname for their always-on-the-move ginger-haired mother: the Red Flash.

Said former federation CEO Rabbi Brian Lurie, “Annette was super friendly. So wherever she went people liked her and related to her. She was so human, so real, there wasn’t a dishonest bone in her.”

Born July 26, 1922 in St. Louis, Mo., Dobbs soon moved with her Orthodox family to San Diego. At 14, she met Harold Dobbs at a Zionist youth function, and from then on the two were inseparable.

The couple married in 1941, eventually settling in San Francisco where Harold Dobbs graduated from Hastings law school, launched a legal practice and business career and made a foray into politics.

Meanwhile, the Dobbs family began to grow. The couple had five children.

Said daughter Marilyn Dobbs Higuera, “She was super organized and had everything plan-ned. She was the kind of person who always knew what her children were doing, and was especially interested in us having opportunities she never had, like ballet lessons.”

But Annette Dobbs was not too busy for volunteer work.

“She never took time off just to focus on family,” Stephen Dobbs said. “In the early years of my father’s political career, she was always there for him.

Her husband co-founded Mel’s Drive-In in 1947 and a chain of bowling alleys. He later served 12 years on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and ran for mayor. All the while, his wife stood at his side.

“She had a fabulous memory,” Stephen Dobbs said. “My father made good use of it. They had a kind of signal system: He’d squeeze her hand if he needed a name.”

With her husband’s support, Dobbs volunteered for multiple Jewish community organizations, with the federation becoming the focus of her service.

“She was a strong advocate for the federation,” said her friend Roselyne Swig. “And at the same time she was very forceful in trying to push it to be more open and inclusive. She had a velvet glove and a very strong hand.”

Though she took her first trip to Israel in 1960, her passion for the country got a kick-start during a 1971 Women’s Division mission to Israel and Austria. Touring the Mauthausen concentration camp, she felt “an awakening of horror,” she recalled in a 1988 Jewish Bulletin interview.

“I removed my scarf and tied it around a pole,” she said, “and I made my own personal vow that I would spend the rest of my life ensuring that this kind of thing never happened again.”

From then on, Dobbs would visit Israel several times a year.

She led the successful effort to establish Haifa as a sister city to San Francisco, and she was a key player in the Project Renewal program, which cemented ties between the federation and towns in Israel’s north.

Her frequent visits sometimes meant she found herself in the thick of things. Dobbs once huddled in a bomb shelter in Kiryat Shmona as the northern town fell under attack from Hezbollah rockets.

Dobbs’  life was shaken in 1974 when her 22-year-old son, Rusty, died in a car accident while traveling in Spain.

“I don’t think she ever got over it,” said Stephen Dobbs, “but she had so many positive things going on in her life.”

Dobbs never let up on her attachment to Israel. In honor of their late son, the couple built a prekindergarten in Tiberias. They also funded a community center in Tel Hanan Nesher, outside Haifa.

In 1988, Dobbs became president of the federation, the second woman ever to do so (Frances Green was the first).

“She always claimed she wasn’t a feminist, yet she had no hesitation in doing things she wanted to do,” remembered Rita Semel, who worked with Dobbs while serving as  director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council.

Dobbs’ tenure coincided with a tumultuous time in Israel, which at the time endured the first intifada. That only reinforced her passion for the country.

“Every time I was with her [in Israel] she was excited,” Lurie remembered. “She loved the land. On the bus with a mic in hand she would say, ‘Look at that rock! I love that rock!’”

Other boards she sat on included the Concordia-Argonaut Club, United Jewish Appeal, Israel Bonds, American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

With Harold Dobbs’ death in 1994, Annette Dobbs lost the love of her life. They were married 53 years.

Dobbs pressed on, continuing her volunteer work, as well as playing grandmother to 11 and great-grandmother to three.

Even in her late 80s, Dobbs continued to give counsel to the community. In 2010, she won the Robert Sinton Extraordinary Leader Award from the federation for a lifetime of good work.

At the time, the federation filmed an interview with her. “Whatever there was to do, I did it,” she said. “I wasn’t afraid of getting my fingernails messed up. I did whatever was helpful. We had a lot of good times, we had a lot of difficult times. I’ve had a good life. I have no complaints.”

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.