Carol Saal (Photo/Norm Levin)
Carol Saal (Photo/Norm Levin)

Philanthropist Carol Saal’s persistence helped save Palo Alto JCC

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.

When it comes to making an impact through leadership and philanthropy, Carol Saal could list loads of nonprofits — Ben-Gurion University in Israel, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, Hillel at Stanford, South Peninsula Hebrew Day School, Hatikvah House and others.

But establishing a Jewish campus and permanent home for the Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto “is really my biggest accomplishment,” says Saal, adding, “I also see it as my legacy.”

When the Palo Alto resident joined the Albert L. Schultz JCC board in 2001 and became president, the organization (now the Oshman Family JCC) was about to become homeless.

Saal, 78, remembers thinking: “We’re the only JCC that doesn’t own our building or land, and here we are in the most affluent city …” That was simply unacceptable.

So when a large parcel became available in a perfect location, Saal knew the JCC had to move quickly. After they approached the Federation and what was then called the Jewish Home of San Francisco — both of which had large endowments “and we had nothing” — for assistance, the Federation provided funds for an environmental impact report, and the Jewish Home signed on with an adjunct institution for senior living. Other major players also rallied behind the ambitious $140 million capital campaign.

The resulting Taube-Koret Campus for Jewish Life, anchored by the Oshman Family JCC and Moldaw Residences retirement community, opened in September 2009. The campus also houses preschool and afterschool programs, a gym and fitness center, cultural arts events and regional offices of several Jewish agencies.

Putting together the players and funding took chutzpah.

“I guess I like a challenge. That’s the bottom line,” Saal says. When it comes to fundraising, “I”m not intimidated, I’m not afraid of asking, I feel very confident of my people skills.”

Saal grew up Catholic and is a Jew by choice. She met her husband, Harry, when he was getting his Ph.D. at Columbia University and she was working in New York City after graduating from Mount Holyoke College.

When Harry, a computer scientist, was offered a position in 1973 at the new IBM scientific center in Haifa, the couple accepted. The timing for a move to Israel was perfect: Their children, Jessica, 3½, and Nate, 18 months, “were eminently portable,” Saal says. They all learned Hebrew, and Carol began studying with a Conservative rabbi, deciding that she would convert to Judaism.

Resisting pressure to make aliyah, they returned to Palo Alto three years later. Jessica suffered from severe rheumatoid arthritis and “was very sick. We came back to be in familiar territory and get her the medical help that she needed,” Saal says.

They enrolled the children at what was then the only Jewish day school in the area, South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale. “We wanted to continue the sense of living a Jewish life, though we were definitely not religious,” Saal says. “But we wanted to carry on the traditions that we picked up in Israel.”

She continued her studies with their rabbi at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto and fulfilled her desire to convert. “I was never very religious,” Saal says, “but I am deeply culturally Jewish. That’s where my intensity is.” The Saals attend services at Kol Emeth, observe the holidays and are “careful about following traditions,” she says.

I guess I like a challenge. That’s the bottom line.

Though they always believed in tikkun olam and supported worthy causes, the Saals’ fortunes leaped after a company Harry founded went public in 1990.

“It was good, because we immediately felt that we wanted to become philanthropic and we had the means to do it,” she says. “That was really exciting for us to make impactful gifts.“

They set up a donor-advised family fund at the Federation and “immediately involved our children. Our philanthropy has always been a family affair.”

Their largesse included a gift to the Palo Alto JCC “in the $6 million range,” she says, and a large donation to kick off fundraising to establish the Center for Clinical Immunology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, where there is an annual fellowship in their daughter’s name.

Jessica Saal died in 2004 at age 34 from complications of her disease. Her memory lives on in the Jessica Lynn Saal Town Square, which includes an outdoor amphitheater stage and is described online as “the hub of the Taube-Koret Campus.”

Like his late sister, who was a vibrant volunteer in the Jewish community and beyond, Nate Saal is active at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto, where his children are students. Nate’s wife, Susan, is on the board at the Oshman Family JCC and has served as president. Carol Saal is still on the board as an honorary lifetime member.

Zack Bodner, CEO of the OFJCC, describes her as “both visionary and indefatigable,” and says her impact on the JCC “and Jewish life on the South Peninsula is beyond measure.”

When Saal became board president, “that was a moment in which the Jewish community might simply have lost its JCC,” Bodner wrote in an email. “Instead, Carol and other leaders had the audacity and vision to see it as an opportunity to create something bold and beautiful that could meet the community’s needs for many decades to come. Nobody pursued that vision with greater energy or determination than Carol.”

Nowadays, the Saals are regulars on the campus — going for personal training in the fitness center, attending movies, concerts and other programs. “We try to take in everything that we have time for,” she says.

The couple also maintain their long association with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev — Carol with the BGU’s board of governors and the university’s U.S. fundraising branch. On BGU’s main campus in Beersheva sits the Harry and Carol Saal Auditorium.

The Saals threw their support behind BGU because, unlike some of Israel’s older universities, “we liked the fact that it was a ‘startup,’” she explains. ”There was lots of growth and excitement. Ben-Gurion presented an opportunity to make a difference, both in terms of our money and our talent.”

The passion driving all of her volunteerism, she says, is community building.

“Not everybody joins a synagogue — only 25 percent. The rest are looking for ways to connect. I felt that the JCC was really the epicenter of Jewish connection and Jewish learning. We have 3,000 to 4,000 members, and people love coming to the J.”

Her impact spreads well beyond the JCC, Bodner notes.

“Carol and Harry’s philanthropic leadership across so many institutions in the community is inspirational, and serving alongside Carol is a pleasure because of the optimism, commitment and good humor she brings to the work. She is always laughing, always caring, and always urging others to step up.”

Liz Harris

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