As the adage goes, “If you build it, they will come.” Gerson Bakar built it. And come they did.
They came to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, to the JCC of San Francisco, to the UCSF Mission Bay campus, to Menorah Park and to many other Jewish and general community institutions that Bakar played a lead role in bringing to life.
The S.F.-based real estate developer and philanthropist died on June 5. He was 89.
“Though he had all these major accomplishments, he was a very modest man,” said Rabbi Brian Lurie, former CEO of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and a close friend. “I would use the word ‘humble’ to describe him.”
In the Jewish community, Bakar took charge in developing Menorah Park, a housing complex in San Francisco for low-income seniors. Similarly, he spearheaded a facility for the disabled, later named the Gary Shupin Independent Living Community, for Jewish Family and Children’s Services in San Francisco. And he was a core funder of the JCCSF’s top-to-bottom reconstruction that was completed in 2004.
“The San Francisco Bay Area would be a very different place without Gerson Bakar’s philanthropy,” said friend and fellow philanthropist Richard Rosenberg in a 2013 tribute. “The scope has been so extraordinary.”
Bakar’s origins bore little resemblance to the wealth he enjoyed later in life. His parents were Petaluma chicken farmers, part of a group of Jewish agricultural pioneers in the early 20th century.
They didn’t keep him down on the farm for long. Bakar graduated from UC Berkeley’s business school in 1948, going on to found Gerson Bakar & Associates. The firm manages apartments, residential communities and commercial properties in California, Oregon and Washington.
Notable developments included Woodlake, a 1,000-unit apartment complex in San Mateo, and Levi Strauss & Co.’s headquarters in San Francisco, known as Levi Plaza.
Philanthropy, which often took the form of funding and directing capital campaigns, gave him the most satisfaction. One of his favorite institutions was UCSF, for which he helped create its Mission Bay campus and the 70-bed Bakar Cancer Center.
“Gerson Bakar, along with [wife] Barbara, helped usher in a new era of health care and philanthropy in the Bay Area and beyond,” said Mark Laret, CEO of UCSF Health. “I am profoundly grateful for Gerson’s foresight, compassion, generosity and especially his friendship.”
Other major projects include donating $25 million to UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business to support a building for executive education, co-founding BRIDGE Housing, and having an instrumental role in moving the SFMOMA to move to its current spot on Third Street in 1995.
“I can say with certainty that the museum would not have made the bold and pioneering move from the Veterans Building to Third Street without [Bakar’s] dedication and leadership,” SFMOMA director Neal Benezra said. “He has arguably been one of our most important trustees through the whole history of the museum.”
Bakar gave generously to the Jewish community, sustaining close ties to the S.F.-based Federation and the Jewish Community Endowment Fund. In 1998, the Bakars were among the key donors to raise a collective $22 million to commence the renovation of the JCCSF.
He once wrote, “Asking me why the Jewish community is important to me is like asking me why the sun and rain are important. I just cannot imagine my life without the ongoing challenges of being part of the Jewish community.”
Former executive director of the Endowment Fund Phyllis Cook remembers Bakar’s innate kindness. “He was sensitive to the vulnerable,” she said. “He quietly provided living quarters for people in emergency situations, including new immigrants. He was modest and a master at deflecting praise by using humor, usually corny jokes, to engage and divert.”
Former Federation CEO Jennifer Gorovitz credited the Bakars for another key Jewish community real estate deal.
“They were instrumental in helping us buy the neighboring building [on Steuart Street],” she said, “so the Federation could rent, at below-market rates, to other community nonprofits, especially Jewish nonprofits.”
Though successful all his life, Bakar married late. He met his love match in Barbara Bass, a successful businesswoman who had sat on multiple corporate boards. “I married them over 27 years ago,” recalled Lurie. “I joked at the time that I had never married two bosses before.”
The Bakars became a philanthropic power couple. In 1997 Barbara founded Achieve, a nonprofit that helps youth better themselves through academic and community services opportunities.
Though the couple had no children, they saw the teens they helped through Achieve as surrogate kids of their own.
In recent years Bakar allowed the community to thank him for his dedication and generosity. He accepted a Fammy Award from JFCS in March 2012 for his work in creating the Gary Shupin community. The next year, he and his wife were honored by the Federation and Endowment Fund at its annual Day of Philanthropy gala.
In a short film created for that event, Bakar said, “My legacy reflects my good judgment in choosing a wonderful bride. I don’t really need to be remembered, but I hope the organizations Barbara and I have been involved in will be of lasting quality, and that will be our legacy.”
Remembering his friend, Lurie invoked the Jewish legend of the 36 righteous beings who toil anonymously at a given moment in time to make the world a better place.
“He was a lamed vav,” Lurie said, meaning one of the righteous 36. “The one attribute besides being a great worker in society is humility. So I call Gerson Bakar a Lamed Vavnik.”
Bakar is survived by his wife, Barbara Bass Bakar of San Francisco. Contributions in his memory can be made to the UC Berkeley Foundation for the Haas School of Business, the UCSF Foundation (for cancer research and care) or the Achieve program.