Philanthropist Jacques Reutlinger dies at 93

Listening to the blow-by-blow account of Jacques Reutlinger’s colorful life, one can’t help but recall “If” by Rudyard Kipling:

… If you can make one heap of all your winnings/And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss/And lose, and start again at your beginnings/And never breathe a word about your loss …

Reutlinger made (and lost) several fortunes on the power of his savvy, cunning and, by default, resilience, in addition to the wisdom of his intelligent wife, Esther, before the couple became two of the biggest Jewish community-builders in the East Bay.

Reutlinger died at age 93 in San Francisco’s Rhoda Goldman Plaza on Sunday, Aug. 20. He was predeceased by Esther, who died at age 91 in 1998.

Reutlinger is perhaps best known in the Jewish community for the projects he and his wife generously funded: the Reutlinger Gallery at the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley; the Reutlinger Center in Berkeley, which houses the campus’ Hillel and Lehrhaus Judaica; and, of course, the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living, a senior facility in Danville.

But the couple didn’t just give their money; they also were passionately involved in every project they funded.

“He threw himself into the projects. He was very hands-on. He had a very high standard for development and wanted to see the community dollar go as far as it could,” recalled Seymour Fromer, co-founder of the Magnes Museum.

That kind of tenacity was a lifelong tendency for Reutlinger. He was born in Belgium, moved to Holland at a young age and quickly picked up a reputation for bloodying the noses of even the biggest anti-Semitic bullies. Later he became one of the top amateur tennis players in Holland (and he remained a “damn good” player even as a very old man, according to family and friends).

Working for his father’s business, he made trips throughout Europe, and witnessed Hitler’s Germany firsthand. Always something of a rebel, he broke with the family and moved to pre-state Israel in the 1930s.

Reutlinger’s time in Palestine reads like a real-life romance novel. He met Esther, a Zionist from Buffalo; the two danced on moonlit beaches and he cycled through Arab villages under cover of darkness to court her. The two also did underground work for the Haganah, and on at least one occasion, Esther’s quick thinking saved Jacques when British authorities apprehended him without the proper paperwork.

The couple moved to San Francisco by the late 1930s with almost no money to their name. They set up a delivery business with Esther manning the phones and Jacques on an archaic three-wheeled motorcycle. Jacques talked his way into meetings with top Jewish merchants and told them about his “fleet” of motorbikes. Before too long, the couple was at the helm of a successful trucking business.

That was the first of several fortunes made and lost on the Reutlinger roller coaster. After an Independence Day vacation one year, Reutlinger returned to his San Francisco headquarters at the Ferry Building to find that an arsonist had destroyed his entire fleet of trucks.

“So he started a new business,” said son Mark Reutlinger, a lawyer and law professor in Tacoma, Wash.

“My parents built an apartment building in Concord, but that went bankrupt, so they had to start again. He had a candy machine route. We had candy bars in the garage I used to raid. Another time, he had an old panel truck and he had the restaurant supply route. He worked his way into having enough money, and my mother always wanted to go into real estate.”

Esther Reutlinger’s instinct was dead on; the couple invested in buildings in Marin and the East Bay at just the right time, and their fortunes were secured. And not only theirs’ — Reutlinger let friends join him in property investments and many became rich thanks to him.

The longtime Berkeley residents and members of Congregation Beth El always gave money to the Jewish community, but when they grew truly successful in the 1970s, their gifts grew. Reutlinger’s focus on Jewish education and art inspired his interest in Hillel, Lehrhaus and the Magnes. Unfortunately, Esther’s slow and agonizing demise to Alzheimer’s disease spurred his gift to the Reutlinger center (formerly the Home for Jewish Parents).

Friends and family remembered Reutlinger as a rough-around-the-edges, driven man who never completed his formal education but never tired of learning new things. While he was not a man who got along with everybody, he was known as remarkably generous. He had an amazing mind and could do complex math problems in his head faster than people using calculators (a favorite trick of his). And his energy level, even in his 90s, was astonishing.

“When someone in their 90s passes away, one is not usually shocked and stunned. But I thought of him as indestructible. So, in spite of his advanced age, it’s difficult to deal with his being gone,” said Lehrhaus Judaica founder Fred Rosenbaum.

Jacques Reutlinger is survived by son Mark, of Tacoma, Wash., daughter Regine Wilson of Nevada City, Calif.; sister Johanna Taylor of Israel and grandchildren John Riley and Eliana Reutlinger. Donations in his memory can be sent to Berkeley Hillel, 2736 Bancroft Way, Berkeley, CA 94704.

Joe Eskenazi

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