Jewish values are the bottom line for new Sinai Memorial director

Sam Salkin’s résumé includes top corporate posts with the Alaska Commercial Company and Peet’s Coffee & Tea. These days he prefers what he calls “holy work, soul work.”

For the last 10 months, Salkin has served as executive director of Sinai Memorial Chapel, which, at 110, is the Bay Area’s oldest Jewish funeral home.

He leaped at the chance to apply his considerable business skills to a Jewish nonprofit, hoping to, as he says, “assure quality, engage in continuous improvement, and bring to bear strategies to make sure the institution is here for another 100 years.”

He won’t do that by adapting the same approach he mastered in the private sector. Salkin says Sinai Memorial is a different kind of enterprise, one for which honoring Jewish tradition comes first, with net receipts down on the list of priorities.

Sam Salkin photo/emily savage

“Since the middle of the 19th century, funeral service has been designed as a for-profit enterprise,” he says, adding that Sinai Memorial was insead founded “to serve all walks of Jewish life from the perspective of a holy burial society, which focused on honoring the deceased and the truest acts of kindness.”

That includes the long-standing Sinai Memorial policy of providing funerals, burials and gravestones for all Jews, regardless of their ability to pay. The funeral home also takes on full mortuary, funeral and burial expenses for families that have lost an infant or child.

Sinai, which has three offices and serves the entire Bay Area, also provides grief counseling, some of it in collaboration with the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center.

“We pioneered a program called Next Steps for Mourners,” Salkin says in his San Francisco office. “We have a cadre [of social workers] who send a letter, make a call, arrange visits and counseling sessions for anyone we identify as Jewish who experienced a loss. There’s no other funeral service in America that does it.”

This is not Salkin’s first Jewish communal post. He previously served as CEO

of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and as executive director of the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund.

Salkin concedes that unlike previous generations, a significant number of Jews today understand little about the Jewish way in death and mourning.

He says 50 years ago, when a death in the family occurred, Jews knew what to do.

Notes Salkin, “They called the rabbi, and the rabbi would say, ‘Don’t worry, Sinai and I will work this together.’ Fast forward to 2011, and a minority [of Jews] belongs to synagogues. Other than the Orthodox in our community, in terms of everything we do, including death, dying, burial and grieving, we are all Jews by choice.”

For Salkin, that leaves hanging the Big Question: Why bother with a Jewish funeral? He believes he — and Jewish tradition — has the answer.

“We [Jews] know exactly what to do,” he says, “which is a source of tremendous comfort. What we do has a huge amount of wisdom, on one hand age-old, but on the other it has tremendous relevance for emotional well-being at a time of enormous loss. Whether you think death equals dirt or the immortality of the soul, the case is still a strong one.”

As a community institution, Sinai Memorial redirects surplus income back to the community. Last year that meant donating to 120 synagogues and community agencies, including the three local Jewish community federations. Even as the margins have become thinner, the tzedakah has never slowed or stopped.

Earlier in his career Salkin helped build Peet’s into a powerhouse. But that was selling one of life’s little comforts. What about the emotional challenges of dealing with the bereaved on a daily basis?

“People have said to me it must be very difficult,” he says of his work at Sinai Memorial. “It is hard, but hard doesn’t mean difficult. The hard part is transcended by the comfort and the confidence of knowing I’m in a role to provide a community service rooted in a very deep Jewish tradition.”

Dan Pine

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