Three women, three careers — one passionate cause

On the face of things, Charlotte Salomon, Betsy Fels Pottruck and Benita Kline seem to come from distant and disconnected ends of the career world. Salomon is a high-tech lawyer, Pottruck sells pretzels and Kline is a consultant to philanthropies.

But the three East Bay women have intersecting paths when it comes to the significant chunks of time they devote to local Jewish federation causes. Each brings a personal expertise and style to her volunteer duties. And the trio shares a passionate view that their unpaid commitments are far from optional activities.

"I do the things that are important to me and being Jewish is so important to me," explains Salomon, a 43-year-old Pleasanton resident who has twice chaired the annual campaign of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay. "Cutting out the volunteer work would be cutting out something so important in my life."

As the daughter of Holocaust survivors, Salomon grew up with a keen allegiance to Israel and the Jewish community. Since moving to the Bay Area 12 years ago, she's translated that passion to a steady string of federation posts, from outreach efforts in the Livermore Valley to a spot she currently holds on the federation's Israel task force.

Salomon founded a Pleasanton-based firm called LawTech in 1992 and is the mother of three. She says some of the skills she uses in her professional negotiations and contracts for high-tech firms also help her as a volunteer. On federation committees, she strives to reach consensus on issues and to stay focused in discussions.

"I have a real attention to detail," she says. "That's something that stands you in good stead when you're chairing anything." She says she also strives to stay calm and avoid micromanaging. "I tend not to spin out of control if things aren't going as planned."

Admittedly, Fels Pottruck's ownership of three Auntie Anne's Pretzel franchises doesn't have a direct correlation to the volunteer work she's done since 1996 at the East Bay federation.

But the 53-year-old Alamo resident thinks the enthusiasm that prompted her to open her first business nine years ago in Walnut Creek also carries over into the considerable energy she expends on volunteer projects. A past chairwoman of the annual Choices fund-raising dinner, Fels Pottruck was recently installed as president of the federation's Women's Division.

"I had a passion to open this business," says Fels Pottruck, who also has shops in Corte Madera and Modesto. "I try to put that same passion into my work in federation. I try new ideas. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't."

By way of example, Fels Pottruck points to her decision to recruit celebrities as keynote speakers at the Choices events she headed in 1999 and 2000. She brought in playwright Wendy Wasserstein and Holocaust survivor Gerda Klein.

As president of the Women's Division, one project that Fels Pottruck wants to guide involves publishing a book of the personal stories and photographs of elderly residents of the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living in Danville. "It's not necessarily a fund-raiser, but we think it's a mitzvah," she says of the effort being dubbed the "Punim Project."

Asked to estimate the amount of time she spends on federation-related duties, she chuckles and replies, "A lot."

"I can't explain it," she says of her commitment. "You just know you're doing good stuff."

She described the inspiration she got when she and other federation leaders visited Ukraine last summer, encountering "people who haven't been able to be Jews all their life and all of a sudden, they're Jews."

Of the federation's efforts in Ukraine and elsewhere, she says "everything that they do touches my heart."

The hours of service have reaped some personal rewards as well. "I know people from everywhere," says Fels Pottruck. "It's been a very broadening, life-enhancing thing. I think I'll be involved in federation forever."

Kline started volunteering for the East Bay federation following a 21-year career as the development director for the now-dissolved United Jewish Community Centers and as a planner for the federation.

In 1998, Kline and a business partner started the S.F.-based Leventhal/Kline Management Inc., which provides consultation services to private foundations and philanthropies.

The 54-year-old Berkeley resident joined the board of the East Bay federation's Volunteer Action Center immediately after leaving her job at the agency and is currently the committee's chair.

In that capacity, she has been active with a recently launched mentorship program that links Jewish businesspeople to men and women from low-income communities who are trying to start businesses of their own.

Kline, who estimates that she spends 10 percent of her time on volunteer causes, notes that the work parallels her professional focus on nonprofit agencies. "I couldn't stand working for a corporation," she says. Of her commitment to nonprofit and volunteer enterprises, she says, "It's good work. It's fun. It's important."