Major leader of S.F. Jewry, Sinton dies

Robert Sinton, a giant in San Francisco's Jewish community, died Tuesday night. He was 81.

His death came as a shock. Sinton had kept up a busy schedule of phone calls and meetings with fellow Jewish leaders until hours before he died.

Sinton's dedication to the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and at least two dozen other Bay Area organizations spanned more than five decades. His activism was legendary.

Friends and family said the retired investment broker offered much more than just his time to Jewish causes.

"He was considered one of the truly wise men in the community," said Wayne Feinstein, the federation's executive vice president. "There was nothing valuable or important to organized Jewish community life that at some point didn't call on Bob Sinton's leadership, wisdom and generosity."

Over the decades, Sinton served as president of the JCF, the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco and the United Jewish Community Centers. He was the first chair of the federation's endowment fund committee. He had been a vice president of the Goldman Institute on Aging.

One of the traits that apparently made Sinton so popular was his ability to hear and understand other people's points of view.

"People would say he could make an objective evaluation of a situation divorced from rigid ideology or his own ego needs," said Earl Raab, former executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. "That is why he was one of the leaders. There are lots of people in office — but not that many leaders."

Sinton suffered from pulmonary fibrosis. He was rushed to UCSF/Mount Zion Medical Center on Tuesday night and died there several hours later as a result of his lung condition.

Phyllis Cook, the federation endowment's executive director, described Sinton's position in local history succinctly.

"He cannot be replaced," she said.

Born in Marblehead, Mass., he moved here as a teen. His maternal grandmother was a Koshland, one of the renowned Jewish families that pioneered San Francisco.

He graduated from Yale in 1936 and married Joan Salz four years later. He served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserve during World War II.

Sinton became a general partner in 1946 of J. Barth & Co., an investment firm, and later a managing partner. J. Barth & Co. merged with Dean Witter & Co. in 1970. Sinton stayed with Dean Witter as an executive vice president until his retirement in 1977.

He served on the New York Stock Exchange's board of governors from 1967 to 1970.

Sinton's activities within the Jewish community fill pages. His son credited one man for his father's dogged determination to help fellow Jews: Adolf Hitler.

"This was his response to the Holocaust…That was his impetus as a young man," Douglas Sinton said of his father.

Robert Sinton was long associated with a vast array of groups, including the American Jewish Committee, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Council of Jewish Federations, State of Israel Bonds, Mount Zion Hospital, Mount Zion Health Systems, Goldman Institute on Aging, Newhouse Foundation, Camp Tawonga, Congregation Emanu-El and the Zellerbach Foundation.

He served on the boards of many of these organizations.

From 1954 to 1956, Sinton was the president of the JCC of S.F. In 1961 he became the first president of the Bay Area's now-defunct United Jewish Community Centers. In recent years, Sinton had again become active in the JCC of S.F., working to revive the financially shaky center.

He was involved with the federation nearly all his adult life, serving on the board for decades and on nearly every committee.

Sinton was federation president from 1967 to 1969. He served as the first chairman of the newly established endowment fund committee from 1977 to 1982.

Last September, he co-chaired the Quarter Century Circle dinner that honored all donors who had given to the federation for 25 years or more.

Sinton also served on the boards of Mills College in Oakland, regional United Way and the former Children's Hospital in S.F.

"I consider him the consummate Jewish community leader, and I knew all of them," said Lou Weintraub, former federation executive vice president. Sinton knew the inner workings and structure of the organized Jewish community as well as any paid professional, Weintraub said.

Fellow Jewish activists said Sinton's example inspired them and many others to get involved.

Peter Haas, one of Sinton's best friends and former federation president, offered a simple goodbye.

"He was a mensch. He was thoughtful and considerate," said Haas, who is chair of the executive commitee at Levi Strauss & Co.

William Lowenberg, another former federation president and longtime Jewish activist, called Sinton remarkable.

"He was in my opinion not only a role model but one of the most beloved, most intelligent, most reliable and most honorable people I've met in my life," Lowenberg said. "He was the kind of person who made you want to be part of the Jewish community."

Sinton also had a fun side.

He loved to play golf and dominoes. His passions included spending time with his family and reeling off detailed genealogies.

"He knew the whole family tree of every Jew in San Francisco," said his daughter, Barbara Wilson. That included dates of births, deaths and marriages.

"He was a walking encyclopedia."

Sinton is survived by his wife, Joan Sinton; two children, Barbara Wilson of San Francisco and Douglas Sinton of Palo Alto; and seven grandchildren.

A memorial service was held at 11 a.m. today at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. Private interment will take place at the Home of Peace Cemetery.

Contributions can be sent to the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation or to the charity of one's choice.