Past, Present, Future

by Jessica Hanewinckel June 24, 2011


By Jessica Hanewinckel

A quarter-century ago, Charlie Chaplin was the movie star everyone went to the theater to see. The first oil was discovered in the Saudi Arabian desert, completely transforming the nation. The events depicted in the Academy Award-winning film “The King’s Speech,” about King George VI, occurred in the UK, and the first electric guitar was debuted. Man flew successfully for the first time in a helicopter, and Alexis Carrel and Charles Lindbergh developed the very first artificial heart. A lot has changed in the last 75 years. In San Diego’s Jewish community, that change is clear.

Where today, Jewish San Diego has a healthy, diverse and philanthropic community of more than 100,000 people, dozens of synagogues and countless agencies and community support systems, it had only about 2,000 people, three synagogues and few agencies 75 years ago. But in 1936, something began that would set the stage for San Diego to become one of the country’s top centers of Jewish population today. In that year, the Federated Jewish Charities (originally comprised of the Jolly Sewing Circle, Hebrew Sisterhood and Junior Charity League) split into two independent agencies: the Jewish Welfare Society (later to become Jewish Family Service) and the United Jewish Fund (later the United Jewish Federation of San Diego County, and today the Jewish Federation of San Diego County). Currently, San Diego’s Federation is one of 157 nationally, under the umbrella of Jewish Federations of North America, and it’s the backbone of San Diego Jewry.

This year marks San Diego Federation’s 75th anniversary, and though a formal community-wide celebration took place at Liberty Station Jan. 15, the occasion is a year-long opportunity for the Federation — and the larger Jewish community — to honor its history and look toward the future.

Milton Roberts, age 98 and the oldest living past president of Federation (he served as the 10th president in 1957), offers perhaps the best perspective of Federation’s tremendous growth in and contributions to San Diego.

“There’s absolutely no comparison [between Federation then and now],” Roberts says. “When I went to the 75th anniversary celebration, I was literally amazed. I was amazed at the size of the gathering…about 800 people. It was so professionally done, and [I was impressed at] the size of the community and the affluence as compared to what it was in those days. In those days, a big gift was $1,000…There’s just no comparison.”

Like any history, the present is understood through the lens of the past. It’s difficult to fully appreciate the Federation today without knowing where it came from.


The Early Years

From its earliest years, Federation has been on the frontlines helping Jews overseas. In fact, when Judge Jacob Weinberger took action and formed what was then the United Jewish Fund of San Diego, he did it specifically to help Jews experiencing what were then the early beginnings of the Holocaust and to assist Jewish settlers in what was then Palestine. Weinberger became the Federation’s first president, and co-founder (along with 11 others) Sol Stone procured the Federation’s first office on Fifth Avenue and Broadway downtown. That first year, these volunteers raised $14,600. Because the local community was so small, its needs were minimal. And as World War II ended, Israel was founded and Jews found themselves trying to reestablish their lives, the Federation’s focus shifted to assisting with the formation and settlement of Israel.

“In those days, the primary issue was the assistance to Israel,” says Roberts, a clothing store owner at the time who moved to San Diego in 1941 and became involved in Federation shortly thereafter. “Of course, we still had other agencies; they weren’t big and there were very few…We had two employees besides Al Hutler [Federation’s first paid professional director]. When we had an annual meeting or fundraising meeting, we would bring in celebrities like Kirk Douglas and the Marx Brothers, hoping it would attract people…We made every effort to raise all the money we possibly could. I would say we gave about 70 percent to Israel, and the balance would be distributed among national agencies and a few local agencies.”

By 1947, the Jewish population in San Diego had almost doubled, and the annual campaign that year had brought a much larger sum of $200,000. By 1957, the population had reached about 7,500 Jews, and Federation raised $270,000. Things were growing slowly and steadily, but La Jolla, today one of the largest centers of Jewish activity in the county, was still off limits to Jews.

One of Roberts’ most memorable contributions to the Jewish community during his tenure was his involvement in ending anti-Semitism in La Jolla.

As Roberts tells the story, one night in 1957, as he and his family were eating dinner, Roger Revelle, (namesake of UCSD’s Revelle College and a scholar who was instrumental in bringing the university to San Diego) knocked on their door and asked to speak to Roberts and his wife, Evelyn, about an urgent matter. As Roberts recalls, Revelle explained he was head of a committee trying to raise money for a playhouse in La Jolla (today the La Jolla Playhouse). Revelle wanted to know why the Jewish community wouldn’t financially support the playhouse effort, despite the fact that it had always been supportive of the arts.

“Evelyn and I proceeded to tell him why,” Roberts says. “Of course, the reason was that Jews weren’t welcome in La Jolla. They couldn’t buy property, own homes or rent stores to operate a business. They were excluded from living or doing anything in La Jolla, so why would we support the building of a theater if that was the situation?”

Revelle sat there in amazement, Roberts recalls, having had no idea of the situation. But he was working to bring both UCSD and the Salk Institute to the area, and he knew the many Jewish scientists and professors who would no doubt work in these institutions wouldn’t want to, because they couldn’t live nearby. Revelle vowed to do something about the problem. Revelle worked hard locally for two years to change the atmosphere in La Jolla toward Jews, opening the door for the healthy Jewish population there today.

“My feeling was that while we may not have been the reason all this happened, we kind of felt like we were the catalyst because Roger Revelle, the mover and the shaker, didn’t know [discrimination] existed until we talked to him that night.”

The same year Roberts served as president, a joint committee of the Federation (still known as the United Jewish Fund) and the Federation of Jewish Agencies met with the desire to merge into one group. The recommendation was accepted, and the United Jewish Federation, as it was known until last year, was born. Just a year later, the Jewish Community Center on 54th Street was built and housed Federation and Jewish Family Service, Federation’s oldest beneficiary agency. Things were suddenly speeding up and expanding for Jews in San Diego, and Federation was at the heart of it, accepting new agencies as beneficiaries and taking responsibility for funding an increasingly larger community.


Rapid Growth

The ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s marked a time of rapid growth and expansion in the San Diego Jewish community, and Federation was at the center of it. By 1967, the population had reached 9,000 and that year’s campaign raised $819,000.

The growth of the Jewish population in San Diego meant existing agencies expanded and new ones were added. The Bureau of Jewish Education was founded in 1968, and the Jewish Community Foundation also began in the ‘60s, giving Federation the freedom to explore new community betterment programs and tailor its efforts to the changing needs of the community thanks to grants from the Foundation.

In 1974, Immediate Past Board Chair Andrea Oster (who served as board chair from 2008-2010) moved to San Diego and worked her way up the ranks on various boards within Federation.

“One of the highlights of my whole experience has been just watching this community grow and develop,” she says. “When we moved here, if I had known there were only about 16,000 Jews I probably wouldn’t have come, because I’m from Cleveland, where there is a very strong, vibrant Jewish community, and that’s what I wanted for my children…but I had the privilege and honor of being involved in the community and really watching it build its infrastructure and develop into such a vibrant Jewish community. Even when I came, the JCC was at 54th Street, and it was dilapidated. The Federation was on El Cajon Boulevard across from a poker parlor. It’s come so far. JFS, when Jill [Borg Spitzer, JFS CEO] came here [27 years ago], had a budget of $600,000 or $900,000, and now it’s $15 million. To watch this happen, to see all the day schools and congregations and richness of Jewish life, which is kind of what I came from, [has been great].”

By 1977, the population had doubled to 18,000 people, and Federation had outdone itself with its annual campaign ($2,300,000). Yes, the money raised had increased significantly, but Federation had a much larger local community to assist, and Israelis continued to require support as they built their country, defended themselves from hostile neighbors (in the 1967 Six Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War) and absorbed Jewish immigrants who were escaping persecution from Diaspora countries.

In the 70s, as demands locally and overseas grew, so did Federation. It moved to new headquarters twice in the ‘70s and ‘80s before finally arriving at its current Kearny Mesa location.

By 1987, 45,000 Jews lived in San Diego, and Federation raised $5.5 million in that year’s annual campaign. It had reached a fundraising milestone and wouldn’t ever look back, but the population was about to increase even more, and Federation would, in turn, answer the need with new research into the community’s needs and with an answer to those needs in the form of creative funding strategies and novel programming.


The Last Twenty Years

An ever-expanding, increasingly comprehensive Jewish community in San Diego has attracted increasingly more Jews in the last few decades and created a population explosion. Today, the number of Jews in the county hovers over 100,000, making it one of the largest Jewish communities in the United States. The population has grown so much and become so complex that one-half of the allocatable dollars from each campaign stay in San Diego, Oster says. The other half is still distributed in Israel and around the world through United Jewish Communities, specifically the Jewish Agency for Israel (which promotes aliyah, helps immigrants absorb into Israeli life, and provides Israel and Jewish education worldwide) and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (which provides relief and rescue in emergency situations). In all the major rescues of Jews from places like the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia, Yemen and other Arab countries, San Diego’s Federation has assisted. The same applies to Jews in need who are under attack in Israel, like during the Lebanon War. Even natural disasters that have hit places where Jews are a rarity, if not non-existent, Federation and members of the community have given their time and money to help.

“There are countless occasions when our system must rise to meet challenges that cannot be met at the local level alone,” Oster says. “Katrina is one example.” So are the Haiti earthquake, all major U.S. floods in the past few years, the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, and even San Diego’s own 2007 wildfires. Because of San Diego’s personal connection to wildfire assistance, it was Oster who chaired the committee at an international level to allocate $1 million and bring assistance to victims of the recent Carmel Fire in Israel.

Of course, though, funding local projects and programs is a vital role of San Diego’s Federation.

“Over the years, I think we’ve really been able to strengthen our Jewish institutions and help them when they were weak,” Oster says. “They’re all very strong now, and we’ve been a convener of that…I think our [local] agencies are fabulous. Every single one of them has a great CEO and has done beautifully, but I don’t think it would have been possible to build this community without the leadership of Federation. [We’ve always been involved] in the infrastructure.”

In 2003, Oster chaired the Jewish Demographic Study, the first scientific survey of the San Diego Jewish community, “a catalyst for a lot of change in the community,” she says. Federation developed a strategic plan based on the survey results, and many underserved populations saw new programming geared toward them: Older adults received assistance through the On the Go transportation program; students benefited when Federation provided seed money to develop a community-wide place to subvent the cost of day schools, supplementary schools and preschools; and Jewish single parents received support through a new program addressing their needs, to list a few.

Most recently, in the last few years, Federation addressed the economic downturn by collaborating with the Foundation to convene an Economic Crisis Task Force.

“They brought together agencies to see what the community needed,” Oster says, “and fundraised to establish an Economic Recovery Fund to assist the agencies and synagogues during the economic crisis.”

It’s work like this that’s so intangible that makes it difficult, sometimes, to completely grasp how Federation, and agencies like it, affect the community so profoundly.

“You love the JCC because your child goes to school there or you use the gym or their pool, or you go to summer camp,” Oster says. “You can touch and feel that. A lot of what we do you can’t touch.”

But tangible or not, Federation’s hard work the last three-quarters of a century has paved the road for the next 75 years of commitment to a Jewish San Diego and a Jewish world.


The Future

In 2010, Oster stepped down from her position, and Federation welcomed Jan Tuttleman as its next board chair. With the transition came other changes for Federation: a new logo, a new name (to Jewish Federation of San Diego County) and a redefined mission with an emphasis on six areas: Jewish philanthropy, Israel and overseas Jewry, community engagement and leadership development, community planning and innovation, community finance and administration, and Jewish community relations.

“We’re looking at new ways of helping our community,” says Tuttleman, who moved to San Diego in 1989 and became involved in Federation in 1995. “We’re looking at new ways of planning for our community and convening our community members, such as focusing on our young people…Because of Federation and the amount of money we can raise, which is significant, we’ve touched the lives of so many people in San Diego and Israel and overseas.”

Of Federation’s current and upcoming programs (too numerous to name in totality), Tuttleman says she’s excited about the innovative funding they’re doing for small local start-ups. (See “Innovation in Action.”) They’re also just beginning research for the 2030 Project, a new planning initiative aimed at bringing Jews in their 20s and 30s together to envision and create a strong San Diego Jewish community. Additionally, she says, they’re looking to change the way they work in Israel. They’ve joined Partnership 2000 (P2K), a program in Israel with JAFI , which will enable them to determine how they can be most effective in the Shar HaNegev region in a broader, more complete way.

“I think at this time in our history, after 75 years, it’s a very exciting place to be,” Tuttleman says. “There’s an energy now around what we’re doing that I don’t think has been there for awhile, and we’re really coming into our next 75 years of impacting the Jewish community here and overseas.”

If the 2010-2011 fiscal year is any sign of things to come, Federation is on the right track, said Steve Morris, president and CEO of the Federation since 2009, at the annual meeting June 16.

“Last year at this time, I shared a new plan for a new Federation, a Federation that was responsible to the needs, values and culture of our community,” Morris said from behind the podium at the meeting. “At that same time, I told you about a Federation that would be collaborative, innovative, responsible, community-focused, donor-centric, effective, efficient and aligned with Jewish values. It was also a Federation at that time that was getting ready to celebrate 75 years of serving this community, and what a year it’s been. We’ve been so successful…and as we reflect on the past year we have so much to be proud of.

“As you can see, we have made great strides this year. I believe it is partnerships that make all of this, and more, possible. Collaboration with organizations like the Jewish Community Foundation, our valued community partners, our donors and our leadership continue to enable much of what we are able to accomplish. Federation is committed to forging strategic partnerships to achieve success and build a vibrant future, and this is not just a slogan, but it is what we do: working together to make a difference.”

Rather than emphasize any dollar amount tied to its annual campaign, Morris and Tuttleman highlighted all the tangible ways Federation has made a noticeable difference in the community (See Morris’s top 10 list of Federation’s accomplishments in the past year, page XX.)

“We are no longer going to simply be known as a fundraising organization, but we’ll be clearly seen as an impact organization, an organization through which our donors leverage their Jewish philanthropy — their generous gifts of tzedakah — with those of other community members to achieve great value,” he said. “In the coming year, we will become even more committed and focused on our mission to deliver ever-greater support, and together we will continue to meet the needs of Jews around the world and our community for the future. We all need to do more, and I look forward to working with each and every one of you as we work toward 100 years of Federation in San Diego.”

If the Federation family follows Morris’s suggestion and works harder than ever locally and overseas, Morris says he sees lots of potential.

“I think the future is bright,” he says in a separate interview. “If we can execute some of the very exciting aspects of our plan that we’ve put into motion for the future of the Federation that our board approved almost a year ago, then I think there’s tremendous potential to really take this organization into its next phase. As we celebrate this 75th anniversary, we need to recognize it’s got to be a different kind of Federation of the future to connect and engage with the donors of the present and future generations. One of the things that I tried to bring here, and was really charged to bring here, was a new energy around redefining the mission of Federation and creating new ways to engage people to be excited and motivated about the work we do.”

So what is this 75th anniversary celebration all about? According to Morris, it’s as much about the future as it is about the past.

“It’s a celebration [of our history], but I think we’re moving forward and looking forward, and recognizing there are challenges for Federation, and…we need to work together and not rest on our laurels of the past. It’s important we recognize this milestone and recognize the people who really built the Federation and got us here and truly appreciate what we did, and then use it to really look to the future.”

For more information on the Jewish Federation of San Diego County, visit or call (858) 571-3444.


Innovation in Action

With the perspective of a new Federation with a recharged energy and fresh ideas comes a novel approach of investing in the local community. For the first time in the history of the Jewish Federation of San Diego County, the board has decided in the past year to work through its Community Planning and Innovation Center to invest directly in small non-profits. Its hope, says Lisa Haney, director of the Community Planning and Innovation Center, is that through these smaller nonprofits, they’ll be able to reach the approximately 50 percent of the San Diego Jewish community that is active in very little, if any, of the Jewish community.

“What we’re trying to do is continue our investment in our longstanding partners and in the organized Jewish community that’s doing great work and has been for many years,” Haney says, “and also balancing that with some new investments in innovative projects and grassroots projects.”

According to Haney, they’re working with Jewish Jumpstart, an L.A.-based nonprofit that studies what it calls the Jewish innovation ecosystem and analyzes Jewish start-ups. During the last fiscal year, Federation provided $90,000 of innovation funding to be distributed among 12 organizations that would benefit the local community. The first two projects Federation funded were Moishe House ($10,000) last fall (creating a center of Jewish life for Jews in their 20s) and One Happy Camper ($20,000) in collaboration with the Foundation for Jewish Camp in January (allowing Jewish kids to attend Jewish overnight summer camp for the first time).

The next 10 grantees were selected last month after Federation called several months ago for proposals from local Jewish grassroots nonprofits that are “bold, ambitious and new to San Diego.” According to Haney, they received 32 applications from organizations hoping to receive a portion of the remaining innovation funds.

“We’re trying to achieve this balance of supporting those [organizations] that are doing good work already and that we’ve been working with for years, and then getting some new projects going that will engage people in different ways at different ages and at different stages of their Jewish journeys,” Haney says. “It’s kind of a balance we’re trying to achieve there. We do fund much more toward the established organizations, but we’re giving this a shot and we’re going to see if these smaller organizations with new projects can really make a difference.”

The 10 grantee organizations and the programs specifically chosen for funding include:

• Anti-Defamation League, I-Pitch for Israel: Jewish Student Leadership (for college students to respond to anti-Israel rhetoric on campus)

• Temple Solel and eight other synagogues, Pathways and Beyond (for the unaffiliated and intermarried)

• Chabad of SDSU, Jewish Discovery Expo (to unite Jewish young adults, specifically unaffiliated, through exciting Jewish experiences)

• G’mach Jewish Gift Closet, The Jewish Gift Closet (collecting services, money and used goods to distribute to the needy)

• Tarbuton, Tarbuton Israeli Cultural Center (for educational programs emphasizing Israel, Israeli culture and Hebrew)

• Hope Village San Diego, Chesed Home (for Jewish adults with severe mental illness)

• San Diego Jewish Academy, Books to Share (sends used books from SDJA to Jewish children and adults in the Transcarpathian region of the Ukraine, which is rebuilding after destruction in World War II)

• Congregation Beth El, Shabbat Vibes (for young professionals who seek a fun, educational and social Shabbat)

• Victor Center (Albert Einstein Medical Center), San Diego Jewish Genetic Gene Screen/Prevention of Jewish Genetic Diseases (creates awareness among Ashkenazi Jews about heritable diseases and connects families to local screening services)

• Friendship Circle San Diego, Friends@Home Learning Packets (funds will train teens to educate special-needs kids they visit about Jewish holidays and customs)

Local Partners

Federation may have started small, but today it works closely with many local organizations and agencies to help promote their success in San Diego’s Jewish community


B’nai B’rith Youth Organization

Foundation for Jewish Camp

One Happy Camper

Hillel of San Diego

Jewish day schools

Jewish Family Service

Ken Jewish Community

Lawrence Family JCC

Moishe House

Seacrest Village Retirement Communities


CEO Steve Morris’s List of Top 10 Federation accomplishments of the 2010-2011 fiscal year

1. A name and brand change to align more closely with the national federation system, improving national exposure, visibility and recognition.

2. A celebration of 75 years of service to the community.

3. A free community event featuring Natan Sharansky, celebrating 20 years since Operation Exodus, and honoring Jewish military heroes. At this event, Federation began the effort to fund the writing of a San Diego Jewish community Torah for use by active duty Jewish military chaplains.

4. Becoming the catalyst for the development of innovative programming and services through Federation’s Community Planning and Innovation Center (see “Innovation in Action”)

5. Introducing the new Jewish Community Relations Center (which will soon unveil a new Jewish Community Relations Council), a public affairs arm of the Federation. It will convene the community in times of crisis, celebration and commemoration and will emphasize Israel advocacy, outreach to the general community, and public policy.

6. Launching a new, innovative and collaborative framework for the advancement of Jewish education in San Diego as programming formerly of the Agency for Jewish Education becomes part of the JCC and CJC program offerings. Federation, in its role as a community convener, will establish the Jewish Educational Services Council.

7. Focusing on three meaningful initiatives to engage and connect young adults to the community: Young Adult Division, Birthrght Israel and the 2030 Project.

8. A renewed commitment to seniors through the On the Go senior transportation program and the reimagining of a new Jewish Senior Services Council.

9. A celebration of 13 years of longstanding partnership with Sha’ar HaNegev and a reimagining of that partnership, including joining with the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Partnership 2000 (P2K) framework to connect San Diegans with Israelis in Sha’ar HaNegev on personal, organizational and community levels and by creating a long-term volunteer project.

10. Supporting those in need during times of crisis, this year by providing aid following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the wildfires in Carmel, Israel, and the tornadoes in the South and Midwest United States.

3 thoughts on “Past, Present, Future

  1. I received the July 2011 issue of the San Diego Jewish Journal. As a native San Diegan I am always interested in the Jewish history of San Diego. I was intrigued by the photo on the front cover of the four ladies and a gentleman. I did a “double take” of the photo and was curious if the second lady from the left was my mother. I asked my sister, Susie, if she recognized the photo and she too was not quite sure if it was our mother.

    I contacted the Jewish Federation office and asked if they could identify the people on the cover. I was told that Milton Roberts, past president, had supplied the photo and that the Evelyn, Milton’s wife, is second from the right. There were no other names with the photo.

    I started to do some investigating and showed the photo to Vernon Kahn, longtime owner of the original North Park bakery. He attends morning minyan with me at Tifereth Israel. He said he would ask some of his friends if they could identify some of the people. Today, Vernon told me that his friend, Norma Peskin, longtime San Diegan identified my mother, as Dorothy Rabinowitz (her maiden name). Her husband, my father, Bernie Arenson, was a past president of the United Jewish Federation. This put a big smile on my face today! 🙂

  2. Read your blog thoroughly through my 72 yr. old eyes. Have virtually no family, husband just passed away . Don’t drive due to so0so cvision, lousy hearing (inherited) partial epilepsy (controlled, pretty much), exeercise lots – walk at least 20 m. per week, not religious, don’t want to live in any kind of senior citizens home, but would like to have some friends . Most have gone while I was taking care of my husband. Live near sdsu, am bus friendly, intelligent (I think). Am not into things like shopping or dataing, but would really like to go places and be with friends. Kike to help people (old or young – Jewish or not). Any suggestions, i.e., reading groups, yoga, just people who don’t siit around? Would really like to have frieds before I die. Like to think of myself as considerate, caring person.

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