New Israel Fund honors activist Racquel Newman

In 1963, Racquel Newman fell in love.

But she couldn't express her feelings with chocolate or flowers. The object of her love was an entire country.

"The Israel of then had a true pioneer spirit," Newman recalls of her first trip to the Jewish state. "It was an exciting and dynamic place as projected by the people who live there."

Newman, whose friends call her "Racky," has been back to Israel countless times since she and her late husband, Nick Newman, first toured the country in a battered car three decades ago. Here, she has been a driving force behind the New Israel Fund, which awards grants to projects that strengthen democracy and social justice in Israel.

On Wednesday Oct. 18, the organization will honor Newman at its annual Guardian of Democracy Awards dinner. The keynote speaker will be Newman's friend Galia Golan, a founder of the Israel Women's Network and a professor of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

"They both share a passion for feminist politics, peace and philanthropy," says Laura Talmus, regional director of the New Israel Fund.

Indeed, Newman has spent much of her energy on philanthropic pursuits, including serving as a past officer for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and as trustee of its Jewish Community Endowment Fund.

But it was the New Israel Fund, with its strong link between donors and recipients, that over time became the main target of the San Francisco resident's philanthropic attention.

"I was quite fascinated by the idea of grants where there was no built-in guarantee that an organization would get money just because they were there with their hand out or because it was an established organization that always cried for crisis response," she says.

A progressive who has long been involved in the Reform movement, Newman also identified with the causes NIF supports — civil and human rights, environmental protection and Jewish-Arab co-existence. Its benefactors include the Association of Civil Rights in Israel; Isha L'Isha: Haifa Feminist Organization; and HILLEL: Association for Jews leaving Ultra-Orthodoxy.

Newman, in fact, has asked that all funds raised through the Oct. 18 event be used to support the NIF's work in the areas of religious pluralism and women's rights.

"I know the country well," she says, "not only the big towns and glamour situations connected with being a funder, but a lot of the grassroots issues and places."

About 15 years ago, Newman considered moving to Israel permanently. "But it's a very hard place for a single woman in her mid-years," she says, defining her age only as "we don't do age. It doesn't exist." Besides, "I knew my children probably wouldn't follow me."

Born in Chicago, Newman graduated from Radcliffe College with a degree in political science, and has worked as an independent consultant to nonprofit organizations and as a philanthropic consultant to donors. A mother of four and grandmother of one, she received an advanced degree in education earlier this year.

That does not, of course, mean that Newman's involvement with NIF will diminish. "There's only so much time and energy you have. You put it where you think it really counts," she says. "I guess the New Israel Fund is one of the places I think it really counts."

At the NIF's upcoming dinner, the organization will also honor its Bay Area founders: Alvin Baum, Sheldon Greene, Deborah Kaufman and Naomi Lauter.