Recounting the genesis of the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life and her involvement with it, Carol Saal repeats one word more often than any other: Beshert.
Beshert is the Yiddish word meaning “destiny” or “fate,” often used to describe a soulmate. Considering Saal gave her heart and soul to the project from the beginning, the term is apt.
“It starts with me being very passionate about the Jewish community,” says Saal, who got involved with the project in 2001 when she became president of the board of the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center (now the Oshman Family JCC).
Since then she has been a prime mover, shaker and cheerleader for the mammoth Palo Alto project that officially pops open the champagne next week.
“I felt like God was looking down on this project,” she says. “It was meant to happen, and it was going to be incredible. I obviously had moments of doubt but I never let it get to me. I never focused on any downside.”
Fate began smiling down on the project soon after Saal and the board decided to find a new location for the JCC, then housed on the site of a former middle school. The plan was to buy, not lease, a new property.
“We’re one of the wealthiest communities in the country,” she remembers thinking. “Not to have a proper JCC was unacceptable.”
After a few false starts, the first beshert moment came when the site of a Sun Microsystems campus went on the market. It was not just any site.
“There had not been 12 acres on the [Palo Alto] market in a long time,” says Saal, a Palo Alto resident. “It had a huge building on one acre and all the rest was just parking. So much was perfect: easy access, near Highway 101, in a commercial district where we didn’t get a lot of pushback from neighbors getting hysterical about increased traffic.”
The second beshert moment came when Saal, knowing the JCC would need partners to finance the project, thought of bringing in San Francisco’s Jewish Home. As luck would have it, the home’s then-new executive director, Daniel Ruth, embraced the idea of creating a senior living community in the South Bay. His board kicked in $3 million in purchasing power to show it was serious.
Turns out, the Moldaw Family Residences is a key component of the campus project.
When Saal and the JCC bid on the Sun property, they encountered yet another beshert moment: The realtor in charge of the sale was an Israeli woman.
“She was always very clear that she was not going to give us any favoritism,” Saal recalls, “but she said all things being equal, she wanted us to get the bid. We won the bid because ours was the easiest, cleanest bid. We just put a price down.”
With escrow closing in June 2002, serious fundraising began. The Oshman Family Foundation kicked in $10 million, which put the effort well on the way to the $32 million price. The Taube and Koret foundations soon delivered major lead grants as well, and the campus idea began to bloom.
Not everything went perfectly. To raise cash, four acres had to be sold off to private developers. But the spirit of beshert still hovered. At one point, architects realized they needed a half-acre parcel adjacent to the property. It turned out a Jewish couple owned the land, and after some negotiating, the couple sold the parcel to the JCC.
From there the project evolved into the sprawling Jewish village it is today. “Like a place you’d see in Israel,” Saal notes. “We developed the notion of strolling places and a town square.”
She is still expressive about how the project has developed from sketches on paper to mortar and bricks.
“When I used to look at [the plans], they looked so dreamlike,” Saal says. “Architects always make things look so much more attractive than they end up being.”
In this case, she says, “What we ended up with is even better than the renderings.”
Saal and her husband, Harry — who has also served on numerous philanthropic and professional boards and received many awards for his service — were feted by the OFJCC earlier this year at the Rambam’s Ladder Award Dinner in Palo Alto Hills.
As for that town square, it will be the Jessica Lynn Saal Town Square, named for Saal’s daughter, who died in 2004 at age 34 from rheumatoid arthritis.
Carol Saal feels this is a fitting memorial to Jessica, who was a dedicated Jewish community volunteer despite being disabled by her disease.
“The [campus] was one of the things that kept me going and focused,” Saal recalls of the dark days after her daughter’s death. “I knew I wanted the town square named after her because it would be the center of things, a place she would be memorialized for years to come.”
Now that the campus is open for business, Saal is beginning to take in just what she and countless others brought into being.
“It’s stunning that so many people came together,” she says. “When there is great passion and great vision, when you dream big and you have the right people involved, then amazing things can happen in this Jewish community.”