As a representative of American Jews, Harold Zlot has traveled to Cuba to help rebuild its Jewish community, to Argentina to aid Jewish victims of terrorist bombings and to the far reaches of Russia to foster Jewish self-sufficiency.
Now, as the new president of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, Zlot will serve as the top representative for the federation on his own turf.
The Bay Area native succeeds Alan Rothenberg, who completed his two-year term at the beginning of this month.
The JCF presidency is the culmination of more than 30 years of federation involvement for Zlot, a general partner in The Access Fund, an investment management company in San Francisco.
Decades back, Zlot and his friends worked with then-federation executive director Lou Weintraub to start a federation group for young Jewish singles to meet their peers and work together in the Jewish community. The Young Adults Division now boasts a mailing list of more than 3,000 and is broadening to include couples as well.
A quietly articulate man not given to emotionality, Zlot, 60, describes his commitment to the Jewish community as having come naturally, through family example.
His grandfather was president of Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland. Zlot grew up in Vallejo, where only about 100 Jews lived, but his parents continued the family tradition as leaders in the Jewish community. His father was president of Congregation B'nai Israel and his mother, president of Hadassah.
Now residents of Ross, Zlot and his wife, Mary, are the parents of three sons and are members of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael.
In his years since YAD, Zlot has continued his leadership role — in Marin, at the JCF and on the national level with the Council of Jewish Federations. He is also a current board member of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a federation beneficiary agency that provides relief and rescue of Jews abroad.
Through his work with the JDC, Zlot visited Cuba, Russia and a number of other countries with small Jewish communities — visits that he called "the most moving and interesting experiences I've had."
In Cuba, where the community was just emerging after being quashed for years by Fidel Castro, Zlot and his colleagues brought medical supplies and clothing.
"We participated in Shabbat services with the 1,500 Jews there," he recalled, "trying to give them a sense of connection with the American Jewish community."
In Argentina following this decade's terrorist bombing of the Jewish community center in which so many Jews were killed, he and other JDC activists helped Argentinean Jews organize efforts to take care of community needs.
"Providing what we call technical assistance — that is helping the people to set up systems and organize so that they can be self-supporting — is one of the main goals of the JDC," he said.
Over the years, Zlot has been thoroughly immersed in the JCF's local activities. He chaired the first Marin capital funds committee, raising dollars to create Marin's Jewish community campus. He also chaired the JCF's annual campaign in 1996.
He has been president of such JCF beneficiary agencies as Berkeley Hillel and United Jewish Community Centers. He also headed the federation's planning and allocations committee for two years.
Last year, as chair of the JCF's Israel and overseas committee, he focused on the federation's Israel-related activities and joined a group of 100 on the "Israel at 50" Mission. Over the past two years of Rothenberg's tenure, the federation has flourished. Its annual campaign increased by more than $3 million to $20.5 million this year and its Jewish Community Endowment Fund reached $518 million. New guidelines for the allocation of funds were put into place. And the Teen Initiative, a blueprint for keeping post-b'nai mitzvah youth connected to Judaism, was established. The federation also expanded its Israel ties, creating the Israel Center, which is a central resource for Israel-related programs, and the Gift of Israel, which enables families, synagogues and the JCF to contribute to a savings plan for teen travel to the Jewish state.
"If I were to leave a message to Harold, it would be to open up avenues for involvement in the community for more people," Rothenberg said. "We must make it fun as well as challenging, so that people are willing and eager to make a place for us in their busy schedules."
Zlot and Rothenberg are on the same wavelength. Zlot views getting more people involved — and helping them on their paths to Jewish leadership — as a primary challenge of his presidency.
"We have a tremendous resource in leadership potential for our Jewish community that is somewhat untapped. We must reach out to them," he said.
His other main goals include re-examining the JCF's relationships to its beneficiary agencies and to Israel.
"Can we make the allocations process more user-friendly? How can we make fund-raising in the community more cost effective and less duplicative? Can we join together for technical assistance, joint purchasing, future planning?"
On the Israel front, he noted that the nature of the Israel-diaspora relationship has changed. Now 50 years old, Israel has matured into an economically sophisticated and viable country. The relationship of the future may be a partnership, with both partners working toward strengthening Jewish life.
In his first board address earlier this month, Zlot called on its members to be ambassadors for the federation at cocktail parties, in the workplace, in their congregations or wherever the opportunity arises.
"You must be educated about what we do and you must talk about it," he said. "We do great things — we must spread the word."