Bay Area philanthropist Helen Diller dies

Helen Diller had more than 2,000 children.

Three she gave birth to. The rest were Diller Teen fellows and Diller Tikkun Olam Award recipients, all of them benefiting from the generosity of one of the Bay Area’s most visionary Jewish philanthropists.

Helen Diller died of natural causes Jan. 9 at her Woodside home. She was 85.

Helen Diller with Mayor Ed Lee at April 2012 opening of the Helen Diller Playground at Mission Dolores Park photo/sfrecpark.org

“She took pleasure in seeing the young people whose lives were impacted [by Diller programs],” said Phyllis Cook, a longtime friend and former Jewish Community Endowment Fund executive director. “She loved meeting those kids. She believed in investing in the future.”

Said San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee in a written statement: “Helen serves as a model for how great civic leaders can impact the lives of people both near and far. We have lost a true heroine and a great friend.”

Her friend Laura Lauder, who sat on the JCEF board, called Diller and her husband, Sanford Diller, “model donors. She would talk to staff to understand exactly the needs of the community, and then create innovative programs to address them.”

The Jewish community knew her best as the heart and soul of the Helen Diller Family Foundation. A supporting foundation of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, the foundation gained worldwide recognition for programs it established since its inception in 1999.

Those programs include the International Diller Teen Initiatives, which sponsors the Diller Teen Fellows and the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards; the Helen Diller Family Awards for Excellence in Jewish Education; a Diller-endowed Jewish studies program at U.C. Santa Cruz; and an endowment for a visiting Israeli scholar at U.C. Berkeley.

Many young families also recognize the name from the Helen Diller Family Preschool at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

“I wanted a hands-on approach, where I just don’t give out funds,” Diller told J. in a 2012 interview. “I wanted to have my own programs, where I could originate the ideas — it’s challenging to come up with the ideas.”

Diller’s philanthropy extended beyond the Jewish community to the arts, medical research and her native San Francisco. The family foundation sponsors the annual Helen Diller Family Israel Antiquities Lecture Series at the Fine Arts Museums in San Francisco, and donated $5 million to build the entrance courtyard of the de Young Museum.

In 2003, the foundation gave $35 million to build the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus.

Toddlers may not know her name, but they may enjoy using the major Diller-funded renovations at San Francisco’s Julius Kahn Playground and Mission Dolores Park.

Helen Diller receives Lifetime Achievement in Philanthropy award at 2012 National Philanthropy Day in S.F. photo/flickr-reny photography

Diller always stood by her adage, “It’s never too late, too early, or too often to give back and make the world a better place.”

Born and raised in San Francisco, she was one of three children of Lodz-born Dora and Denver-born William Samuels, who met and married in post-World War I Poland. “She was raised with Jewish values,” said her daughter, Jackie Safier. “Her parents had a very simple upbringing and they did what they could with what they had.”

Helen and Sanford Diller met in 1951 at a JCC dance while both were attending U.C. Berkeley. “It was a love match,” Safier said. “A great partnership.”

The two lived simply when they first married and Sanford was completing law school. Later they moved to the Peninsula, where he worked as a lawyer. He started Prometheus Real Estate Group, which became one of the largest commercial real estate firms in Northern California.

Safier remembers her mother as kind, gracious and elegant. “She always dressed in color,” she said. “The house was full of color, indicative of her personality.”

Once her children were grown, and after years serving as regional president of the American Friends of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and as Bay Area chair for Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, Helen Diller jumped into philanthropy.

From the start, she wanted to help teens, whom she felt were underserved in the Jewish philanthropic world.

“There were already all these programs for college-aged people and older,” she told J., “but there was nothing for the 13- to-19-year-olds.”

She started the Diller Teen Fellows in 1997. The program recruited Jewish teens in the Bay Area (and later other cities) as well as teens in Israel. The two groups would spend time in each other’s countries, cementing friendships and deepening ties to Israel. So far, 2,000 teens have gone through the program.

She started the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards in 2007. Fifty-five teens have been recipients of the awards, which honor innovative, community-minded teen leaders with a $36,000 prize.

“I had a sense of her as completely invested and dedicated to this mission of supporting teens,” said Adam Weisberg, director of Diller Teen Initiatives. “She was always engaged in discussions about where the program was going and how to grow it. She really took great pleasure in meeting the teens when they were in San Francisco to receive their awards, hearing about their projects and talking about what came next.”

She not only recognized deserving Jewish teens, she also honored the Jewish educators who taught them with the annual Diller Teacher Awards, which come with a $10,000 prize.

Lauder chaired the selection committee for several years. She recalled how Diller loved to hear the stories of the various candidates.

“It was such a pleasure to work with her on that,” Lauder said. “She would make it so easy, smooth and fun to work together on the projects she was behind. Her determination, sensitivity and passion for recognizing teacher leaders was very powerful.”

Even in recent years, when health problems slowed her down, Diller remained an active philanthropist.

“She really was hands-on,” said Safier. “My dad gets all the credit for being a great businessman, but my mom was unbelievable, too. She was a very positive force who inspired others.”

Helen Diller is survived by her husband, Sanford Diller, of Woodside; sons Brad Diller of Redwood Shores and Ron Diller of Ra’anana, Israel; daughter Jackie Safier of San Francisco; and seven grandchildren.

Dan Pine

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