Phyllis Cook (Photo/Norm Levin)
Phyllis Cook (Photo/Norm Levin)

One-time teacher Phyllis Cook found her calling in philanthropy

Part of Trailblazers, a series of profiles of Jewish men and women who build and sustain our Jewish community, supported by a generous donation from Carol and Norman Traeger.

Phyllis Cook never set out to work in philanthropy. But as a young, energetic volunteer in the San Francisco Jewish community, her people skills, leadership capacity and fundraising prowess proved too impressive to ignore. Others took notice, and asked her to take on broader responsibilities and heavier tasks.

In time, that’s what led to her position at the helm of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

When Cook started as endowment director in 1983, the fund had less than $28 million in assets and distributed $4 million in grants. By the time she stepped down 25 years later as endowment director and JCF associate executive director, the fund had amassed more than $2.6 billion in assets and allocated more than $200 million in grants over the previous year alone.

“During her tenure, Phyllis has created one of the largest, if not the largest, federation endowment funds in the country, as well as numerous innovative programs associated with endowment,” Richard Rosenberg, then endowment committee chair and former Bank of America CEO, told J. in 2007.

Cook could have rested on her laurels and sailed into a life of leisure — she enjoys reading, cooking, hiking and needlepoint. Instead, she became a philanthropic consultant, opening an office not far from Pier 39 in San Francisco.

The commute from her home on the Peninsula is a grind. “You grit your teeth and you do it,” she says, but the reward is “helping individuals and families achieve their philanthropic goals.”

The key to success? “Listening,” she says firmly, “and being able to connect the dots.”

For Cook, it’s not all about raising money. “The greatest privilege has been to be able to meet the nicest people. People want to give back.”

Likewise, Cook continues as an active volunteer and donor who sits on numerous nonprofit boards, including the Bernard Osher Foundation and the Rosenberg Foundation, both based in San Francisco. She counts both men as role models and friends. Ditto for the late Jim Joseph and Gerson Bakar, on whose foundations she has also served. And she values her friendships with other giants in the Bay Area Jewish community, including the late Richard and Rhoda Goldman and Helen Diller.

In all respects, Cook has come a long way from Idaho Falls, where she was born and raised. “It wasn’t easy being Jewish growing up in Idaho,” says Cook, who was an only child in one of the very few Jewish families in town. Her grandfather settled there because “that’s where the Union Pacific Railroad stopped,” she says. He opened a store; later the family manufactured men’s clothing.

Cook’s father served as lay rabbi and her mother taught Sunday school in Pocatello, Idaho, nearly 52 miles away. When Cook was old enough, she went to Jewish summer camp.

In 1955, she set off for the University of Michigan to earn a bachelor’s degree. Unlike many girls who’d grown up in Jewish communities “and were looking to meet people who weren’t Jewish” at college, Cook says she “was looking the other way.” She met her husband, David, through a sorority sister.

Cook pursued graduate studies in English at UC Berkeley, and for a while taught at a high school in the East Bay. She eventually became discouraged with the public schools and shifted her attention elsewhere.

The greatest privilege has been to be able to meet the nicest people. People want to give back.

She got her feet wet in the Jewish community in Chicago, where she and David lived for a few years, by getting involved in the young-married division of the local Federation.

When the couple moved to the Bay Area, Cook “went to the Federation and somehow found myself involved in the new young-married division.” She would become the first woman to receive the Federation’s Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel Young Leadership Award, in 1976. She headed the planning and allocations division, and chaired the annual campaign.

She served on the board of Mount Zion Hospital and led strategic planning, and volunteered at the Jewish Museum San Francisco, the precursor to the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Cook contemplated working “in the museum field,” but when the Federation offered her the job of endowment director, she accepted.

Having gained fundraising experience as a volunteer and found powerful role models in the community, she was ready. “I was always searching for mentors,” she says, “but I found some of the lay leaders I worked with taught me.”

Some of her fondest memories of working at the Federation involve donors. “I was most touched by meeting people who were survivors of the Holocaust and came to San Francisco because people like Daniel Koshland and Walter Haas offered them jobs.” The immigrants often took menial positions, yet saved their money and gave back — either during their lifetimes or after death.

“It was a very meaningful experience,” Cook says.

“Some of these people had saved the cards that showed that they would have a job here, which allowed them to escape [the ashes of the Holocaust] … Some came through Shanghai, others from elsewhere. They were leaving legacies to the Federation.”

Also deeply meaningful is her association with Joseph, who “cared very much about Jewish education,” she says. “It was a wonderful experience being part of the development” of the S.F.-based Jim Joseph Foundation.

She also stresses the importance of developing strong leaders, describing Wexner Foundation and Diller Teen programs as “powerful.”

“Leadership training has a huge impact on a wide number of people,” Cook says. “One great leader can make a huge difference.”

Jim Koshland, who has known Cook for more than 30 years, gives her high marks not only for her professional skills but as a mentor. “Like many people, I would have never gotten involved in the Jewish community if not for people like Phyllis,” he says.

He also calls her “a very loyal and giving friend” who will host 30 people for Passover, making matzah ball soup and sending everyone home with food. And, he adds, “She has a wonderful partnership with her husband, David.”

The couple’s daughter, Anne Cook, lives in San Francisco where she is a producer of live events. Their son, Daniel, died at 30 of cancer.

A member of Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo, Cook didn’t have any Jewish role models when she was a child, other than her parents. Yet “It was a great way to grow up,” she reflects. “It makes you value part of your identity that maybe others take for granted.”

And so, she continues to contribute — through volunteering and her work. “I feel so fortunate to have the energy and strength [to do this],” she says. “I appreciate being able to make things happen, and mentor young leaders.”

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.