Golda Kaufman, S.F. humanitarian and activist, dies at 91

Rita Semel described Golda Kaufman as one of the smallest people in physical stature that she knew. But in her spirit and character, she was "one of the tallest and imposing and caring," Semel recalled of her longtime friend. "Her heart was much, much bigger than she was."

Kaufman died on Sunday in San Francisco. She was 91.

Golda Kaufman (née Stevens) was born in London in 1909. The eldest of six children, she was the daughter of an engineer who owned one of the first automobiles in England. Philanthropy was ingrained in the children at an early age, and they volunteered at settlement houses and orphanages as soon as they were old enough.

Kaufman married Harold Myers when she was 19 and had one son, Julian. Myers died of a brain tumor a few years later.

A young widow, Kaufman came with Julian to the United States as a tourist to attend the New York World's Fair in 1939. But when the war broke out, it was impossible for her to return. And once Great Britain got involved, her family convinced her to stay.

She had gone to Boston, where she had distant relatives, but they weren't so eager to help her. She took whatever jobs she could find, always being paid under the table, since she was not allowed to work legally. She also got involved in the Jewish community.

After meeting Harold "Hank" Kaufman on a blind date, they married in 1944 and he adopted Julian.

A Harvard graduate, Harold Kaufman had enlisted in the Army, and was called to serve in the Pacific. He was based out of Fort Mason, so Golda and Julian moved to San Francisco to be near him when he returned. After the war was over, they decided to stay. They soon had a daughter, Denise, and Harold Kaufman went to work in commercial real estate, while Golda turned her efforts to the Jewish community. The family belonged to Congregation Emanu-El.

Tora Smart, one of Kaufman's grandchildren, described her as always dressed in impeccable suits, with her hair and nails done perfectly. "She was the perfect example of a modern woman born in 1909," Smart said.

Kaufman was also known for her extraordinary networking skills, constantly introducing people who should know each other.

According to granddaughter Karen Kaufman, when a Jewish organization called upon her for something, "she just didn't say no. A core value of hers was tikkun olam."

Denise Kaufman agreed, saying her mother believed that "what we are put on earth to do is to make the world a better place. She had a huge dedication and love for the Jewish world everywhere."

She helped begin the Women's Division of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, helped found the local chapter of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and was a life member of Hadassah for more than 60 years.

Her Jewish involvement also included serving on the boards of all major Israeli universities and hospitals, and she often hosted events in her home.

"She was always motivated by important issues within our community," said Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council. "She was always wanting to do more…it is almost inconceivable to imagine going to community events where Golda was certain to be at now and not see her there."

Kaufman's activities were not limited to the Jewish community. She was an ardent supporter of abortion rights and organizations that advanced the status of women. She also volunteered on Christian holidays at Glide Memorial Church and supported cultural causes such as the San Francisco Boys Chorus.

Perhaps the greatest symbol of her altruism was the work she and her husband did to bring an Indonesian family to the United States. The Kaufmans were involved in an organization called International Hospitality, through which they became friendly with Dr. Bok Kwee and his family. The Kwees spent one year in San Francisco.

After they went back, they found that anti-Chinese sentiment in Indonesia was growing and they felt under attack. They wrote letters to the Kaufmans that were smuggled out, asking for their help.

"My parents thought it sounded like a repeat of Germany," said Denise. "So they went to some lawyers and were told it was difficult to get a family out, but you could start the process by getting one family member out, usually one of the children."

The Kaufmans wrote a carefully worded letter in which they enclosed a plane ticket and said, "As we discussed when you were here, this is for Ling [their daughter] to come here to study for the year."

Ling came when she was 17, moving in with the Kaufmans in 1963. Her family came in 1968, and "for those five years, she was like my sister," Denise said. Ling is now a vice president at Intel, and her daughter, Su-Yin, was also very close to Kaufman, Denise said.

"When she connected with people, she really connected with them," said granddaughter Karen. "All different age groups, all ethnicities, it was just remarkable how she created community across the country where ever she went."

Marsha Felton, regional director of ARZA/World Union, North America, said she considered herself one of Kaufman's many adopted children.

"There were hundreds of us," she said. "Knowing her has inspired and enriched my life."

Kaufman remained active until her recent illness. When she was 77, she had taken a course in computers and was working on her Mac until a few weeks ago.

"Even in these last few weeks," Denise said, "she was having us check her e-mail for her."

Predeceased by her husband, Harold J. Kaufman, who died in 1992, Kaufman is survived by son Julian Kaufman of Aloha, Ore.; Denise Kaufman of Venice, Calif.; grandchildren Karen Kaufman of San Francisco, Linda McDonald of Columbus, Ga., Steven Kaufman of Portland, Ore., and Tora Smart of Venice; great-grandchildren Elijah Smart, Abby Jacobs-Kaufman, and Marc, Megan, Beth Ann and Bryan McDonald; sisters Rose Cowan of South Africa and Sadie Haley of Great Britain; and brothers Jack Stevens of Great Britain, Arthur Stevens of Canada and Leonard Stevens of California.

The funeral was held Wednesday at Emanu-El, with arrangements by Sinai Memorial Chapel. Donations may be sent to the Harold and Golda Kaufman Judaica Book Fund, Harvard College Library, Cambridge, MA 02138; the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, 132 Nassau St., #412, New York, NY 10038; the American Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science, 291 Geary St., Suite 405, S.F., CA 94102; or Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St., S.F., CA 94118.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."