Dorothy Saxe is a mainstay of Jewish philanthropy in the Bay Area with a passion for art. (Photo/Norm Levin)
Dorothy Saxe is a mainstay of Jewish philanthropy in the Bay Area with a passion for art. (Photo/Norm Levin)

Dorothy Saxe: a masterpiece of generosity and understanding

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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.

Dorothy and George Saxe never had “the talk” with their children, she confided recently.

They didn’t have to, explained the 93-year-old mother of three, because philanthropy was simply part of family life. It was a given.

“The kids told us that they observed” the contributions she and her late husband made to the Bay Area Jewish community and the arts through volunteering and donations. “We led by example,” she said.

The couple have been donor-advised fundholders with the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation for decades, and George served on the Federation board (and others). Dorothy helped solicit funds for the Federation, served on the board of Jewish Family and Children’s Services in San Francisco and AIPAC, and is still a trustee of the Contemporary Jewish Museum and Pilchuck Glass School in Washington state.

Their son Loren served on the board of the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto and as president of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills. Daughter Ellen Saliman sits on the board of the Peninsula JCC. Son Joel volunteered with the nonprofit Gesher.

The Saxes even set up funds for their six grandchildren, so they too would become philanthropic. No doubt Saxe’s six great-grandchildren will follow suit.

“I’m very proud of them,” Saxe said of her family.

Saxe learned the importance of giving — and Judaism — as a child. She grew up in a Reform household, following traditions such as lighting Shabbat candles and attending weekly religious services. “Jewish holidays were a big deal,” she said.

Her father was president of their synagogue in Michigan City, Indiana, for 18 years and volunteered as a board member of Jewish agencies. Her mother was active in the synagogue sisterhood. Their goodwill spread beyond the synagogue: During the Depression, people would come to their door seeking assistance. Whether providing food or money, her family would help.

“My father never told me the importance of giving back,” Saxe said, “but I knew he was very generous. He did so many things I was aware of. He was a sterling example of a philanthropist.”

For Saxe, Judaism is “being involved, caring, helping and doing. Mitzvahs and tikkun olam,” said the longtime member of Reform Congregation Beth Am. “I love being Jewish — everything about it.”

Her other great passion is art.

Dorothy and George began exploring the world of art in the 1970s. It was something they could do together, and it quickly captivated them both. “It changed our lives, how and where we traveled,” she said. They’d visit studios and artist communities locally and abroad. “All of my good friends from around the country I met through art,” Saxe said.

Though she doesn’t consider herself artistic, “I was always interested in art.”

Saxe recalled taking the train to Chicago with a cousin to go to the Art Institute as a young teen, and “as soon as I could, taking art appreciation courses” as a student at Northwestern University.

She and George began their collection with glass art, eventually expanding into other media. “l’ve always liked anything made by hand,” she said.

Nearly 70 pieces from their collection are on permanent display at the Dorothy and George Saxe Collection of Contemporary Craft at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. And her Menlo Park home is bursting with handcrafted art. Pieces of all shapes and sizes and expressions decorate the walls, occupy shelves and tables, even hang from the ceiling. With the exception of a few couches, all of the furniture was commissioned.

There is also Judaica — a Kiddush cup, tzedakah box, hanukkiyah, Shabbat candlesticks. All are one-of-a-kind. There are also pieces from every Dorothy Saxe Invitational at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. The exhibit, endowed by her husband the year before he died in 2010, invites artists of all faiths to reinterpret a Jewish ritual or ceremonial object, and allows collectors to purchase pieces at the close.

“It’s very informative for non-Jewish people,” Saxe said, adding, “a lot of the artists have told me that they are lapsed Jews and it helped them reconnect with their roots.”

Among her favorite invitationals: “Sabbath” in 2017 (“the submissions were fascinating”), and “Do Not Destroy: Trees, Art, and Jewish Thought” in 2012, inspired by the holiday of Tu B’Shevat.

Sergei Isupov, "Life’s Work," 2011, was part of "Sabbath: The 2017 Dorothy Saxe Invitational" at The Contemporary Jewish Museum.
Sergei Isupov, “Life’s Work,” 2011, was part of “Sabbath: The 2017 Dorothy Saxe Invitational” at The Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Saxe has deep ties to the museum, going back to its founding as the Jewish Museum San Francisco on the bottom floor of the Federation building on Steuart Street. She believes the CJM has been “very successful” in achieving its mission to bring a diverse audience through its doors. The museum “is a delight — it’s very exciting,” said Saxe, who provides financial support to other museums and cultural institutions, as well.

Eventually, most of the art in her home and San Francisco apartment will be shared with the public. “We wanted to build a collection of important art that we knew we were going to give to a museum someday.”

In the meantime, Saxe keeps busy. She enjoys attending art openings, traveling in search of art, sharing her art expertise and lending a helping hand to worthy causes. Lately, “I’m zeroing in on specific things,” she said. “I am getting more involved in advancing special projects at various places.” She serves on the arts committee of the Campus for Jewish Living in San Francisco, finding art for the buildings; is involved in an art project at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, commissioning a new sculpture; and sits on a committee that is selecting art for the new Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto.

“She is indefatigable,” effused Lori Starr, the CJM’s executive director. Saxe is chair of the museum’s governance committee and board secretary. “She understands the role of trusteeship and fiduciary responsibility, understands the process … that every voice counts,” Starr said.

Noting that Saxe’s grandson David also serves on the board, Starr said of Dorothy Saxe: “She is the paradigm of lay leadership, setting an example and opening portals of new leadership … She has a good eye, an ayin tov, for art and for all good things.”

In addition to making meaningful gifts to the CJM, Oshman Family JCC, Federation, JFCS, Camp Newman and Beth Am, “I think I belong to most of the Jewish organizations,” Saxe said.

“They used to say that giving to charity is very altruistic, but I think that anyone who gives gets personal pleasure out of it. They certainly benefit from their generosity.”

Liz Harris

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