S.F. activist and philanthropist, Betty Leland, dies at 97

Friday, August 19, 2005 | by

alexandra j. wall



Betty Leland once forgot her ticket to High Holy Days services and tried to enter San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El for Rosh Hashanah. A man securing the door told Leland he was unable to let her in.

“Don’t worry about it,” she quipped, “If you let me in, I promise I won’t pray.”

“That was Betty, she had an amazing wit,” said community activist Susan Lowenberg, a longtime family friend, who added that “they broke the mold when they made Betty.”

Leland, who was active in numerous Jewish organizations, died in San Francisco on Aug. 11. The San Francisco resident was 97.

Betty Robinson was born Nov. 13, 1907 in Montreal. Her parents were immigrants from Ukraine, and her father was an Orthodox rabbi as well as a businessman. The family moved to New York and then Louisville, Ky., before settling in San Francisco in about 1920, where Leland’s father established a shteibel (small minyan) in their house. He also distributed clothing to Jewish émigrés.

Leland had a very traditional upbringing, speaking Yiddish at home. She graduated from the Girls’ High School in San Francisco, and then U.C. Berkeley. In 1932, she married Herbert Leland, a San Francisco native.

Though Leland drifted from Orthodoxy, she remained extremely active in the Jewish community. She served on the boards of American Friends of Hebrew University, Hadassah and American Committee for Shaare Zedek Medical Center, and as a volunteer with the Mount Zion Hospital Auxiliary and the Red Cross. She also was active with the American Heart Association and American Cancer Society. And in addition to Emanu-El, she was also a member of Congregation Beth Sholom.

Robin Leland of San Francisco, one of Leland’s sons, said that just about all Jewish organizations were important to his mother — but even more important were her children and grandchildren.

This was confirmed by her friend of 40 years, community activist Bill Lowenberg, who said that to be friends with Leland meant often getting updates about her grandchildren.

Robin Leland said his mother was known for sending birthday cakes to her children, even when they were halfway around the world. She sent cakes to Boston, London and Paris, when her children were there, always wrapped several times and with candles, including a trick candle in the center that could not be blown out.

Bill Lowenberg, who served on several boards with her, said “She was unusual because she was outspoken and honest.”

The Lelands were also generous donors to many Jewish organizations, establishing the Betty and Herbert Leland Philanthropic Fund through the Jewish Community Endow-ment Fund.

Through the fund, she and her husband supported a number of social, educational, cultural, health and religious agencies and institutions.

Susan Lowenberg added, “She was one of the smartest people I was ever around, and a role model in caring about community. She was such a good friend to people. She really understood her role in the community and that she could make a difference.”

In addition to her son Robin of San Francisco, Leland is survived by her sons Marc of Washington, D.C., and Clyde of Berkeley; her sister Lily Sultan of San Rafael and five grandchildren. She was predeceased by her eldest son, Barry, who died as a child, her husband Herbert, who died in 1984 and her four brothers.

Donations can be made to the Betty and Herbert Leland Philanthropic Fund of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund, 121 Steuart St., S.F., 94105, or the charity of your choice.