Dr. A. Jess Shenson, booster of arts, Jewish causes, dies

His immigrant grandfather's kosher butcher shop was the place where, as a small child, Dr. A. Jess Shenson learned the value of community.

The combination of customers, friends, relatives and food proved to teach a valuable lesson.

"I had total exposure to my Jewish community," the Jewish Community Endowment Fund newsletter quoted him as saying in 1998. "I witnessed tradition and Jewish heritage and helping others and I've carried that through my life."

Shenson, a San Francisco physician, died Feb. 26 of lung cancer. He was 80.

Shenson's father, Louis, also went into the family meat business, and through his meeting with an importer of sausage casings from Shanghai, he began collecting Chinese art. He passed this appreciation down to his sons, Ben and Jess, who not only were collectors but developed a lifelong passion for the arts.

Jess Shenson followed in his brother's footsteps, graduating from San Francisco's Lowell High School, Stanford University and Stanford Medical School. Eventually, the two brothers went into medical practice together, and through their work with local hotels, often administered to visiting celebrities.

Lifelong members of Congregation Emanu-El, they established the Shenson Music Fund, sponsoring yearly concerts at the synagogue and paying for an overhaul of the congregation's Skinner organ.

Jess Shenson "was a very selfless man," said Rabbi Stephen Pearce, senior rabbi of Emanu-El. "He didn't look for any kind of glory at all; he liked to quietly do things. When there was a need, he saw it."

After Ben Shenson died in 1995, his brother sponsored an annual concert event in his memory.

"He always had a tape or CD made out of it, to distribute to everyone involved," said Pearce. "He was always a gentleman; he would send a thank-you note to everyone."

The Shenson brothers devoted their financial resources to arts and Jewish causes in equal measure. Together, they nurtured young classical musicians through the Shenson Young Artists Endowment Fund, established in 1987.

Jess Shenson served on the boards of the San Francisco Symphony, the San Francisco Opera, San Francisco Performances, the Merola Opera Program, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum, and the California Historical Society. He also gave generously to Stanford University.

In addition to Emanu-El, Jess Shenson gave to the JCEF of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

In 1998, he established the Drs. Ben and A. Jess Shenson Philanthropic Fund through the JCEF. That fund enabled him to recommend grants to both the Jewish and general communities.

Shenson was also a donor to the Jewish Museum San Francisco. The Doctors Shenson Fund at the Jewish Home in San Francisco made it possible to expand a day-care program there.

"He was really a treasure," said his cousin Fred Levin of Mill Valley. "He was just the most caring, sweet man. His entire life was devoted to the betterment of man."

Donations can be made to the Congregation Emanu-El Shenson Music Fund, 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."