Levi Strauss heirs support the Jewish community

Each year, the heirs of Levi Strauss pour millions of dollars into the Bay Area Jewish community.

"There's no question about it. Going back three generations, the Haas and Goldman families are the biggest Jewish donors to the Jewish community and the general Bay Area community," said Rabbi Brian Lurie, who headed the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation from the mid-1970s to the early '90s and now serves as president of the Jewish Museum San Francisco.

The families' main vehicles of general and Jewish philanthropy — the Columbia Foundation, the Richard & Rhoda Goldman funds and foundation, the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, the Miriam and Peter Haas Fund, the Walter & Elise Haas Fund — have combined assets of more than $1 billion.

In terms of the Jewish community, the philanthropic giants are the Richard & Rhoda Goldman funds and foundation, and the Walter & Elise Haas Fund.

In 1999, for example, the Goldman philanthropies allotted some $9.1 million to local, national and international Jewish causes. In the same year, the Haas Fund gave $2.4 million to similar causes, although it doesn't make overseas gifts.

Goldman recipients have included the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, Hillels, the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El, San Francisco State University's Jewish studies department and the city's Scott Street Senior Housing Complex.

The Walter & Elise Haas Fund, in addition to donating to many of the same groups as the Goldman funds, has given to A Traveling Jewish Theatre, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, Ruach Ami: Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, Jewish Museum San Francisco and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Brothers John Goldman and Doug Goldman and their uncle Peter E. Haas are all distant nephews of Strauss. Along with other family members, those three San Franciscans help divvy up the grant money for the Haas and Goldman funds.

John Goldman, who serves on the board of directors for the Goldman funds and is a trustee of the Haas fund, sees philanthropy as a reflex.

"It's just part of what I do. My wife, Marcia, says it's kind of like breathing. It's natural," said Goldman, who was recently elected as the new JCF president and will take over in mid-June.

Noting that nearly every patriarch in the family, from Levi Strauss on, has taken a lead role in funding the Jewish community, Goldman said that "the family has an obligation to keep that thread going."

Peter E. Haas, president of the Haas fund and a former JCF president, said he learned his philanthropic values from his parents, Walter and Elise Haas, who "were part of the Jewish community and the general community. I grew up with one foot in each place."

Doug Goldman, who is on the board of directors of the Goldman funds and is a trustee for the Haas fund, said that "the Jewish community is my upbringing. I clearly understood I was a Jew."

Wanting to better understand the needs of the Jewish community, the Haas fund two years ago hired a program assistant who focuses half time on Jewish projects.

"The families' philanthropy is incredibly imaginative and ambitious," said Fred Rosenbaum, an expert on Bay Area Jewish history and the co-director of Lehrhaus Judaica in Berkeley.

Inventive philanthropy is perhaps one of the greatest legacies of the Strauss heirs.

"A family like that establishes a sense of continuity and certainty there will be a future," Lurie said. "Their sense of ongoing responsibility is something every Jewish community desperately needs."