Paula Pretlow
Paula Pretlow

Q&A: A black, Oklahoma-raised Jew inspired by her mother’s values

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In 2011, Paula Pretlow retired as senior vice president at the Capital Group, where she worked on behalf of clients invested in public pension plans. These days, the longtime investment industry executive is immersed in philanthropic endeavors, serving on multiple nonprofit and corporate boards and committees, including the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, the Kresge Foundation and Northwestern University, where she earned an undergraduate degree and MBA from the Kellogg School of Management. Pretlow, 63, also serves on the board at Congregation Emanu-El. The San Francisco resident is the proud mother of two and grandmother of one.

J.: You made a life-altering decision to become a Jew. How would you describe your religious path?

Paula Pretlow: I grew up in Oklahoma City — my family’s roots go very deep in the soil of Oklahoma to the Muscogee, or Creek Nation — and I was third-generation Christian Science. Christian Science is a metaphysical, cerebral religion where you are taught to question. We attended church — first a black Christian Science church, then a primarily white one. But since childhood, I have gravitated toward Jews. My grandparents worked for Jews, and at school I was drawn to the Jewish kids.

When I was a single parent in Orinda, I began talking to one of the rabbis at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette. She outlined a course of study for me. At 50, I became a Jew. I remember going to the mikvah. I came up coughing and crying. I felt that my mother, who had died the year that I decided to become a Jew, was at my shoulder. It was as if she were still alive.

You have said that your mother, Mary McMullen Brown, has been your inspiration. Would you elaborate?

I am the second of five children, and my mother raised us mostly as a single parent. She and my father divorced, although he remained an active presence in our lives. We did not have much money — my mother worked as a secretary for the federal government — but she managed to buy a nice house for us.

In 1958, four years after Brown vs. Board of Education, my mother decided that her five black children would desegregate the Oklahoma City public schools. This was during the time of voluntary desegregation. She did so not because we were not very well prepared in our segregated schools — we were — but because she felt that we needed to learn how to navigate our way in an increasingly complex world.

My mother sent us to primarily white schools in affluent parts of the city with good music programs, since we all played instruments. I played the violin. My mother set high expectations, and we were all expected to excel.

Oklahoma is not known as particularly progressive. One of our nation’s most horrific episodes of racial violence, the Tulsa Race Riot, occurred in 1921 when white mobs attacked the African American community. How did you and your siblings fare in the mostly white environment some 50 or so years ago?

My older brother remembers some skirmishes, but I don’t. I do recall that I couldn’t go to the home of one of my friends because her father was a member of the John Birch Society. But that was about it. We were all very involved in our schools, and we were on a mission. The only backlash we experienced was from some of our friends in the black community. They didn’t understand my mother’s decision.

The Bay Area prides itself on openness and inclusivity, but the face of the local Jewish community is still mostly white. Have you experienced any awkward moments from people who are surprised that you are Jewish?

It often happens. I will give you an example. I recently went to a shiva for a friend’s family member. Of the 100 or so people there, I was the only black person. A woman came up to me and asked me whether I was an employee of the synagogue, because, in her eyes, I couldn’t be Jewish. When I told her who I was, she gave me a look that said she wished she could disappear. With many people’s perceptions, there is an unconscious bias.

And yet the data indicate the complexion of the American Jewish community has changed, hasn’t it?

Yes. I am very proud that the Weinberg Foundation supported a just-released study by the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative, headed by Ilana Kaufman, that indicates that 12 to 15 percent of American Jews in the United States — or about 1 million individuals — are people of color.

You celebrate your Jewishness in many waysyour synagogue leadership, bat mitzvah, holiday observances and many visits to Israel. How do you celebrate the Native American and African American parts of your identity?

As for my Native American heritage, I spent my summers with my paternal grandparents in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, which is the seat of the Creek Nation, so I learned a lot of family lore.

Much of my pride as an African American is expressed through music. My father was a jazz saxophonist — although, professionally, he was a trained journalist who because of few professional opportunities for black men at that time worked in the post office. During his Navy years in the 1950s, he was stationed at Treasure Island in San Francisco, and he loved playing gigs at the clubs on Fillmore. My mother was a classically trained vocalist who played the cello. My maternal grandmother loved to listen to Aretha Franklin, and my paternal grandmother hummed all the time — while she was cooking, ironing, doing the laundry. Part of my childhood included family sing-alongs, although I couldn’t carry a tune. My mother would say, “Paula, you just concentrate on playing the violin.” I carry that love of music to this day. I just stepped off the board of the San Francisco Symphony after 10 years.

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.