Bay Area philanthropist fuels Negev housing project

At 82 years old with no children or grandchildren, Frances Lee Kaufman was realistic about what she could do with her wealth.

“How many steaks can you eat?” asked the Belmont resident.

After being widowed more than 40 years ago, Kaufman amassed a personal fortune with her San Francisco fashion showrooms, which she personally operated until she was in her 70s. Recently she inherited her older sister’s estate and decided to make a donation to the Jewish National Fund — to the tune of $1 million.

When Kaufman first called the local office, she only intended to buy some trees. But, before too long, she’d made up her mind to throw her lot in with the JNF’s long-term plan to establish a series of new cities in the Negev.

As an octogenarian, Kaufman knows it’s extraordinarily unlikely she’ll be around when this vast and far-reaching project is completed. But that’s not what’s important to her.

“Well, you’ve got to put more people into the Negev, because two-thirds of Israel’s area is the desert. Israel is very small. You travel here 50 miles for a good dessert after dinner and you don’t think much of it. But you do that in Israel and you find yourself in Syria,” she said with a laugh.

The ambitious JNF project — the organizations’ first nonagricultural endeavor — is far-reaching. The JNF is working to relocate jobs to the Negev area to attract employees. Money is being collected to aid young Israeli families with down payments on homes. Plans are under way for improved rail systems, so a trip from Beersheva to Tel Aviv would run about 45 minutes.

“It’d be like commuting to San Francisco from Mountain View or taking the fast train from San Jose,” explained Greg Sterling, an Atherton-based JNF contributor and volunteer who recently returned from a JNF mission to Israel.

Kaufman is a lifelong donor to charities Jewish and otherwise — she’s been tithing for as long as she can remember, and writes out $20,000 to Jewish charities every year on her birthday — but this latest gift far exceeds her others. She’s a member of the JNF’s Sapphire Club, an organization of women donors, and making her gift on behalf of a women’s group was important to her.

And she can’t help but laugh that about half of the funds came from her sister, who “never gave a nickel to a charity in her life. We didn’t think alike on any subject. If we were in a room for more than 10 minutes, we were arguing.”

Kaufman has visited Israel four or five times over the past several years to check on the progress of her adopted cause. The JNF’s big project has started with a desert development named Zuqim. When Kaufman last visited, the first family was already living in a 700-square-foot house a real estate agent might generously describe as “cozy.”

“The couple had already been there for three weeks. They had an olive tree out front and holes in the ground for two more,” she recalled.

Since that time, 17 more houses have been built, most of them quite a bit more roomy.

Kaufman admits she finds retirement “boring,” and plans to keep donating and staying involved with Jewish charities and increase her volunteer work for the American Cancer Society. She’s the transportation coordinator for San Mateo County — in an emergency, she’ll get behind the wheel, but she feels she’s more helpful in handling all of the logistics.

Her mind, however, is always on the Negev.

“Arafat always said he’d push us into the sea,” she said. Without more Israelis in the sparsely populated desert, “Where will Israel be?”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.