Barbara Isackson dies at 70

Not so long ago, Barbara Isackson donned jeans and work gloves to plant watermelon seeds in the backyard garden, granddaughter Samantha at her side. The garden — a profusion of color, fragrance and cultivated beauty — had long been a source of pleasure for Isackson, and teaching Samantha to plant came naturally to her.

Throughout her life, Isackson was a planter of seeds. Family, friends and Jewish community workers all attest that she worked tirelessly to make the world a better place.

Barbara Isackson, 70, died on Tuesday, Jan. 27. Her memorial service was held Friday, Jan. 30, at Congregation Sherith Israel. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a girlhood friend, was scheduled to speak, along with Isackson’s four children.

In 1998, Isackson was diagnosed with lung cancer. At the time, doctors gave her less than two years to live, but she proved them wrong, pressing ahead with her full and busy life.

Isackson’s resume includes senior-level involvement with just about every Jewish organization in the Bay Area, including the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, the Hebrew Free Loan Association, Hadassah, Jewish Vocational Services, AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, Jewish Family and Children’s Services, and the Jewish Bulletin, to name a few.

But people who loved her and worked with her say a list of job titles doesn’t convey Isackson’s impact on those around her.

“She had a marvelously acute eye for the issues involving the Jewish community,” says Ernest H. Weiner, regional executive director of the AJCommittee. “She really extended herself. That capacity comes from within. It’s not something you take a short course on.”

Adds Adele Corvin, president of the S.F.-based JCF: “The picture I have of Barbara is of a woman with a smile, interested in everything around her, wanting to make things better for everyone, always ready to recognize what others had done and minimizing what she had done.”

To rear four children, maintain a strong marriage, run a business and volunteer so often for Jewish and non-Jewish causes might throw most people off balance. Add to that Isackson’s passion for philanthropy, gardening, cooking and entertaining, and a picture emerges of a gifted woman.

A native of San Francisco, Barbara Epp was born in 1933, and grew up attending Sherith Israel. Community activist Louise Rosenberg first met her when both were children. “We were the wallflowers at the dancing school,” she recalls. “We were the two not chosen.”

That day, the pair struck up a friendship that lasted 60 years. Both graduated from Lowell High School, with Isackson later attending U.C. Berkeley.

Rosenberg remembers a time when Isackson proved to be more than a friend. “We went to Hawaii together when we were about 19,” she says. “I was afraid of water, but we went out on a catamaran. It started filling up with water, but she saved my life by bailing out the water.”

On a 1951 trip to Las Vegas, she met Wisconsin native Bill Isackson, and her life took a dramatic turn. “Three dates and three years later, they got married,” says Karen Isackson Epstein, Barbara’s daughter. The couple lived in Wisconsin for a while but later moved to the Bay Area where Bill Isackson launched the Ross department store chain.

Throughout most of the next few years, Isackson devoted herself to her children: Bruce, Rob, Lynn and Karen. “It couldn’t have been a more loving, nurturing environment to grow up in,” Epstein remembers. “She had a heart of gold, so anything she did had her Midas touch of warmth and generosity. She could juggle 100 things on her plate without chipping it.”

For many years, Isackson managed her father’s real estate investment firm, the Leo Epp Co. That experience would prove invaluable later as she took on capital improvement campaigns for various Jewish communal organizations.

Yet even during those years of child-rearing and career, Isackson found time to help others. One of her first ventures in volunteerism was serving as a troop leader for handicapped Boy Scouts.

Later, the family moved from San Francisco to Hillsborough, where the couple embarked on new careers as philanthropists and community activists. Isackson herself credited a 1975 trip to Israel as a turning point.

“No one went to Israel then and came back not turned on,” she told the Jewish Bulletin in 1999. “I think once you saw what [Israel] was going through and how much was needed, the call to help became apparent.”

Over the following years, Isackson became a formidable presence in Jewish communal life. She was particularly active with AJCommittee, serving as vice president of the local chapter and committee chair for the international relations committee.

“She was a wonderful and literate person,” says AJComittee’s Weiner, “with a delicious sense of humor. There was never a time when she wasn’t open to suggestions about how we might do things more effectively for the AJCommittee across the whole range of issues we deal with.”

Her involvement with the S.F.-based JCF and JFCS (for which she served as vice president and board chair respectively) gave her other opportunities to shine.

“One of her greatest achievements,” recalls Corvin, “was leading with determination and vision, as she chaired the Rhoda Goldman Plaza for Assisted Living through its development.”

As president of the Scott Street Senior Housing Complex, she helped pull together grants totaling nearly $6 million to build the low-cost housing complex for elderly Jews.

As chair of the Northern California board of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, Isackson helped shepherd the organization through some growing pains, says current AIPAC Western states Director Elliot Brandt.

“She was not just loved by the committee here, she was deeply respected by the national committee of AIPAC, and was seen as a confidante of members of Congress and the Senate,” Brandt said. “She ran AIPAC not just with a passion for Israel, but also with incredible sensitivity, graciousness and charm.”

Isackson played an important role in the evolution of the Jewish Bulletin, as well.

“Barbara was board president of the Jewish Bulletin when she recruited me in 1983,” recalls Marc S. Klein, editor and publisher of the Bulletin and its successor, j. “She was a good salesperson and wouldn’t take no for an answer. We went back and forth, and in every conversation, she said, ‘You’ll want to live in ‘God’s country.’ She later introduced me to a lot of people I needed to meet, and gave me good advice about stepping into a new place and putting out a different kind of paper. She was there whenever I needed her, and continued to be so for 20 years.”

Beyond the Jewish community, Isackson also worked with the Town School for Boys, Partners for Ending Domestic Abuse, and the UCSF Cancer Center.

In 2000, she was named the Robert Sinton Extraordinary Leader of the Year at the JCF’s annual Awards of Excellence.

But as dedicated a volunteer as she was, Isackson put her family first. “Her marriage was one that anyone could envy,” says Corvin. “Bill and Barbara’s life together was superb.”

In recent years, Isackson took on the role she loved more than any other: grandmother. She had 11 grandchildren in all.

“She would do anything for her grandchildren,” says Epstein. “Her love of her grandchildren sustained her through her illness.”

How she handled those final years, say friends and family, might have been Isackson’s crowning achievement.

“She demonstrated such courage in dealing with her illness over these past years,” says Corvin. “It did not stop her involvement with the community.”

“My mother should be an inspiration to any cancer patient who doesn’t believe they can make it,” says Epstein. “I’m not kidding, through all the pain and suffering she never once complained. She had such drive, such a determination to live.”

Said her lifelong friend Martin Weiner, rabbi emeritus of Sherith Israel: “Barbara was an extraordinary human being. She was a devoted wife, mother and grandmother who rejoiced in the blessings of her dear ones and friends. She was an incredibly gifted and respected Jewish communal leader whose wisdom, honesty and determination guided so many worthy causes. Confronting very serious illness, Barbara courageously battled back to affirm the wonders of life, love and family.”

“Her life,” says Corvin, “was made up of family, community, deep feelings for her religion, and living by the highest tenets of quality and integrity.”

But perhaps Isackson said it best herself just a few years ago: “To be fortunate to be able to give is a blessing, and a true gift.”

It was a gift she never stopped giving away.

Isackson is survived by her husband, Bill Isackson of Hillsborough; children Bruce Isackson, Lynn Goodman and Karen Epstein of Hillsborough, and Rob Isackson of Woodside; and 11 grandchildren.

Donations may be made to the JCF, 121 Steuart St., S.F., CA 94105, or the UCSF Thoracic Oncology Fund, attn: Allison Gray, UCSF Foundation, Box 0248, S.F., CA 94143.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.