Sam Salkin poses for a portrait at Sinai Memorial Chapel in San Francisco on Aug. 1, 2023.  (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Sam Salkin poses for a portrait at Sinai Memorial Chapel in San Francisco on Aug. 1, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

Sam Salkin ends 14-year watch at Sinai Memorial Chapel

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Updated Aug. 2

Though he’s officially executive director of Sinai Memorial Chapel, Sam Salkin prefers a less lofty title: funeral director, a term he said better defines his hands-on role at the Bay Area’s 122-year-old Jewish mortuary.

His job is to aid families at what he called the “most raw and tender time.”

Family members arrive in a “variety of states, from being in shock to frazzled to being relieved,” he said. “So the emotions are on a tremendous spectrum. We provide counsel and direction, usually with a steady but soft touch.”

Later this month Salkin, who is 73, will retire after nearly 14 years of providing that touch at the only Jewish funeral service in Northern California. Sinai Memorial Chapel’s new executive director, Liz Orlin, takes over on Aug. 29. It’s a rare changing of the guard at one of the Bay Area’s oldest Jewish institutions — just the second change in leadership in 37 years.

Salkin has made many friends in and around the Jewish community. One of them is Rabbi Doug Kahn, the former longtime executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area. He interacted with Salkin often, both in Salkin’s capacity at Sinai Memorial and during his tenure as CEO of the S.F. based Jewish Community Federation.

“Sam is truly an unforgettable person in the best sense,” Kahn said. “Engaging, caring, compassionate, with a huge Jewish soul, deep humility and complete integrity. He has brought these qualities to everything he has led, along with a can-do spirit and an unwavering commitment to the Jewish future and tikkun olam.”

Sinai Memorial Chapel's main office on Divisadero Street in San Francisco. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)
Sinai Memorial Chapel’s main office on Divisadero Street in San Francisco. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)

Rabbi Marvin Goodman, former head of the Northern California Board of Rabbis, also had high praise for Salkin.

“Sam has been a special person to work with through the years,” he said. “He listened, understood and worked with rabbis and congregants in their hours of need. He enabled those officiating at funerals, as well as those who were mourners, to face difficult situations with the support that they deserved. And he helped develop counseling support after the funeral for mourners in need of additional assistance. He guided his board in making Sinai Memorial the amazing community treasure that it is today.”

The decision to retire was long in the making for Salkin, who two years ago asked the board of Sinai Memorial to start planning for the future.

“I wrote a memo on how to begin to think about the qualities of my successor,” Salkin said. “I had a notion it was a time for fresh leadership, a new perspective, someone better attuned to changes in the Jewish world and the funeral industry.”

Looking back, Salkin said he is proud of achievements during his tenure. Among them is the construction and dedication last year of Memory Garden, located inside Eternal Home Cemetery in Colma, as a Jewish place to mourn miscarriages, stillbirths and the death of newborns. 

Gan Adamah, a fully eco-friendly section also at Eternal Home, is due to open this month. It features burial directly into herbicide-free earth, with the option to be buried in a shroud or wicker. Gan Adamah is certified as a “green burial provider” by the national Green Burial Council.

Under Salkin’s watch, Sinai Memorial also has expanded community outreach projects in recent years, such as its photo exhibit about Northern California’s Gold Rush-era Jewish cemeteries. It sponsors Passover seders at San Quentin State Prison. It has organized a Torah loan program for congregations, and spearheaded efforts to educate the community about the Jewish way in death and mourning.  And it plants a tree in Israel for each person whose funeral it coordinates.

Salkin’s replacement is eager to further develop innovations.

Sam has a huge Jewish soul, deep humility and complete integrity. He has brought these qualities to everything he has led.

“I am really humbled,” said Orlin, a social worker by training, who comes to Sinai Memorial after serving as an executive at nonprofits. “I recognize this is a really important role in this community. It’s an honor to sustain the role Sam has played, and to expand on it.”

Salkin chalks up his enthusiasm for Jewish communal service to his upbringing in Greenville, a small western Pennsylvania town north of Pittsburgh. He and his brother were the only Jewish kids at their high school, but their parents were committed to instilling Jewish values. 

“My parents were communitarians in the strongest sense of the word,” he said. “My father served on the board of the synagogue and chaired the annual UJA campaign. My mother was president of Hadassah and the sisterhood. I grew up with a sense that being Jewish was an identity more than a religion, and that you had obligations and responsibilities to this community.”

After graduating from college, he moved to Alaska to work for a grocery chain for eight years, becoming an executive there. He then moved to California and became president of Smith & Hawken, an upscale gardening company. In 1997, he landed the plum job of CEO of Peet’s Coffee just as the famed Berkeley roaster began developing a national reputation.

Salkin then made a big shift into the Jewish communal world. 

In 2001 he became CEO of what is now the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund. He worked in that role, and as executive director of the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, a private Jewish philanthropy in San Francisco, until 2005. He was last year’s recipient of the American Jewish Committee’s Civic Leadership Award, and is a member of the Jewish Religious Equality Coalition, which works to advance religious pluralism in Israel.

Sam Salkin enters the South Chapel at Sinai Memorial Chapel in San Francisco on Aug. 1, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Sam Salkin enters the South Chapel at Sinai Memorial Chapel in San Francisco on Aug. 1, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

Salkin will be available to Sinai Memorial for several months to assist his successor in her transition, he said. (In addition to operating funeral homes in San Francisco, Lafayette and Palo Alto, Sinai owns cemeteries in Colma, Briones and Oakland. In each region, it also coordinates a chevra kadisha, or the volunteers who prepare bodies for burial according to Jewish tradition.)

After that, the longtime El Cerrito resident has no overall plan.

“I’ll go for good walks every day, look at architecture, visit with friends I may have neglected through this demanding work, and take it easy for a while,” Salkin said. “What comes next will emerge. In the short term, my real intent is to wish Liz success without getting in her way.”

Updated: This story was updated at 5:45 p.m. Aug. 2 to add comments from Rabbi Marvin Goodman.

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.