Yitz happens: S.F. venture capitalist loves wine, Israel and Republicans

Isaac Applbaum, or “Yitz” as he’s known, is an unofficial evangelist for the State of Israel, ever touting the virtues of the Jewish state.

The Oakland resident is not only Orthodox, strictly kosher and fiercely Zionist — a former U.S. senator calls him a “one-man AIPAC” — but he is also deeply engaged in Republican politics and has a long list of business interests that he promotes enthusiastically.

Apparently, evangelism is fungible.

on the cover: Isaac “Yitz” Applbaum photo/david a.m. wilensky

To his mile-long resume as an entrepreneur, investor, wine connoisseur and philanthropist, Applbaum recently added “chief evangelist,” his title at Radius, a San Francisco company that helps business-to-business marketers. He’s invested time, money and love into the company and is one of its most fervent supporters.

He could easily afford to retire tomorrow if he wanted. Instead, he punches the clock a few days a week just like any other latté-sipping hipster in the Financial District.

“My job is introducing [Radius] to chief marketing officers and corporate leaders of Fortune 500 companies,” Applbaum says from Radius’ airy headquarters, which he proudly shows off with all the excitement of a teenager getting a car on his birthday. “Not everyone buys, but everyone’s interested, and I hate no for an answer.”

Applbaum, 55, similarly hates no for an answer when it comes to selling others on the Jewish state.

He has taken numerous VIPs on personally guided tours of Israel, to which he commutes every four to six weeks, sometimes even flying in for dinner with Israeli business partners or political leaders, then flying back the next day.

Just a few weeks ago Applbaum welcomed Hong Kong real estate developer Ronnie Chan and other Chinese business leaders to his Jerusalem home for a night of Israeli food and fine wine. He feels certain they departed with a newfound appreciation for Israel.

Sound like a busy guy? That’s not the half of it.

He also remains an active investor and venture capitalist, and his passion for wine led to a key role in promoting kosher vintages, a growing sector of the wine market. Cozy wine tastings at chez Applbaum are the stuff of legend, and he’ll be leading a wine tour of Israel this November, with a gaggle of Silicon Valley bankers in tow.

Applbaum is also heavily involved in Republican politics, giving and soliciting six-figure donations for several campaigns over the years. He sits on the Republican Jewish Coalition national board and serves on many other business and nonprofit boards, among them the California Israel Chamber of Commerce.

Yitz Applbaum at Radius headquarters in San Francisco’s Financial District photo/david a.m. wilensky

As philanthropists, he and wife Hilda tithe 10 percent of their gross annual income to charitable causes. The majority of their tzedakah supports Jewish education and Israel.

“He has a million things going on at any given moment,” says Rabbi Judah Dardik, former rabbi of Applbaum’s shul, Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland. “They have to do with business, pleasure, friendship, charitable giving, community, Israel and American politics, all toward the greater good, and all of them overlap.”

Friends have a ready explanation for how Applbaum pulls it all off. Says former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman: “Yitz has this incredible ability to connect with people.”

It’s one of Yitz Applbaum’s favorite spots on Earth: the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City. Not at the Wall. Under it.

As an ardent supporter and board director of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, Applbaum is a familiar presence at the Kotel and the excavated tunnels below. He has guided many senators and members of Congress through those tunnels, archaeological wonders that stretch back to the time of King Solomon.

He’s not only partial to politicians. Applbaum once took astronaut Neil Armstrong on a tour, and more recently Robert De Niro and his son. That experience seemed to have an impact on the Oscar-winning actor, who has been outspoken in his support for the Jewish state.

“He asked great questions,” Applbaum recalls of De Niro’s visit, “and there were times when he stood at certain places and was deeply emotional and thoughtful.”

Typically after a tour, Applbaum entertains at his nearby home for dinner, wine and conversation. That’s how he hooks his guests. If he can get them to visit the country, he reasons, they will appreciate Israel as much as he does.

Applbaum continually strives to make a shidduch — a love match — between decision makers and Israel.

“The most important thing is to get people to Israel and inculcate them with the physical beauty of the land,” he says. “If you come to Israel with me, you have to do a night tour of the tunnels. I’ve probably taken 30 to 40 percent of the U.S. Senate there. It changes everything. You never read the newspaper the same way again after visiting Israel.”

Applbaum (left) gives actor Robert De Niro a tour in Jerusalem with Western Wall Chief Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch in 2013.

Applbaum’s attachment to Israel goes back to his childhood in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood. There his father served as rabbi for Congregation Beth Judah, a large Orthodox congregation, and chaired the Israel commission of the Rabbinical Council of America, the rabbinic arm of the Orthodox movement. Applbaum grew up steeped in Zionism.

“From a very young age we went to Israel,” he says. “Israel was always part of the dinner table conversation. We were shomer Shabbat, but during the Israeli wars we kept the radio on in the house even on Friday nights and Saturdays.”

Applbaum attended Yeshiva University in New York and did a four-month stint at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He gave rabbinical studies a shot but realized his professional calling lay elsewhere.

After graduating with a degree in computer science, he went on to join Bell Labs, becoming “one of the worst programmers known to mankind,” he says. “Every 15 minutes I’d get up out of my desk asking how do you do this, how do you do that?”

Fortunately, a colleague picked up on Applbaum’s people skills and asked him to join his startup consulting service. “I never coded again,” Applbaum says, “and my entire career from then on was selling and marketing.”

Applbaum, who moved to California in 1987, credits a string of mentors for his eventual success, among them Bank of America vice chairman Marty Stein. In 1994, Stein described a problem the banking industry experienced moving from mainframe computers to personal online banking. Applbaum pondered the problem. Six months later he launched Concorde Solutions, a software assets management firm that later grew to employ 75 people.

Bank of America bought Concorde in 1999, a transaction that made Applbaum wealthy. It also landed him at the bank as senior vice president responsible for strategic investments. From there, Applbaum enjoyed 20 years at the heart of the Bay Area’s venture capital universe.

Investment firms he worked with include Lightspeed Venture Partners (as managing director), Exigen Capital, Opus Capital (as founding general partner) and Israel-based enterprises such as Vintage Ventures and Carmel Ventures. At every stop, he pushed investment in Israel and sought partnerships between American and Israeli companies.

Financial success allowed Applbaum to pursue his avocations, none with more passion than wine. He grew up drinking the sweet kosher wines of yesteryear, so after wineries such as Napa’s Hagafen Cellars began creating better kosher wines, Applbaum wanted in.

Applbaum meeting Pope Francis in Jerusalem in May 2014

In the late 1980s, he and three friends founded Teal Lake Cellars with the objective of creating a high-quality wine that happened to be kosher.

Teal Lake produced a successful pinot noir and a cabernet. Eventually Applbaum and his partners sold the company to Herzog Wines, which moved the label to Australia. Applbaum sits on the Herzog board today. “Eventually I started drinking more and traveling more,” he says, “and as the kosher wine market opened up, I integrated it into my life.”

Applbaum uses tastings as an opportunity to bring together friends, leaders and colleagues from various walks of life.

“I always bring out Israeli wine,” Applbaum says. “We’re talking business, we’re talking Shabbat and we’re talking wine.”

Convivial he may be, but there’s a serious side to Applbaum, especially when it comes to the survival of Israel and the Jewish people.

Some of that is expressed in his support of the Republican Party. Though he has friends in both parties (he counts Sens. Tim Kaine of Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana among his Democratic besties) and champions any friend of Israel, the GOP is his political home.

“My politics come from my roots,” he says. “It’s a mix of fiscal conservatism, social liberalism and being very pro-Israel, the latter being the most important. Part of me is a core Republican supporter because I do believe in family values and I believe religion plays a role in our lives. Especially because of the pro-Israel aspect, many candidates on the Republican side speak more to my comfort zone.”

He is supporting Jeb Bush in the 2016 Republican primary. A new Field poll shows the candidate at 4 percent, and 58 percent of California Republicans hold an unfavorable view of the former Florida governor.

In addition to donating and raising money for the campaign, Applbaum is a member of Bush’s Jewish leadership committee. He wishes voters could know Jeb as he does.

“Unfortunately, one doesn’t get elected by one-on-one meetings or parlor meetings,” he says. “I’ve been with Jeb many times, and he is so logical, clear, thoughtful, convincing and I’ll say moderate. He’s great for Israel, and what else is there?”

One thing he feels certain about: Donald Trump will not be the nominee of his party.

“I strongly believe that at the end of the day it will be Jeb, Rubio, Cruz or Christie,” he says. “I think the Trump phenomenon has gone on longer [than expected], but most Democrats and Republicans are rational people.”

Hilda and Yitz Applbaum with Republican presidential aspirant Jeb Bush

Coleman, who lost his Senate seat to Al Franken in 2008 and is today a Washington, D.C., lawyer, counts Applbaum among his confidants, saying he “probably has more close friends among members of the Congress than anyone outside the body. What drives him is a deep passion about the safety of Israel. Obviously, he lives his faith.”

Coleman, who is Jewish, last year joined several of his former Senate colleagues on an Applbaum-led tour of the Kotel tunnels. He remembers Arizona Sen. John McCain’s eyes lighting up as he touched stones that might have been part of the Second Temple while Applbaum expounded.

“Too often we’re defined by the jersey we put on,” Coleman adds. “It’s ‘R’ or ‘D.’ With Yitz it’s ‘I’ [for Israel]. Yitz is up there as having at the highest level an ability to reach across the aisle. Clearly he’s a Republican, but he has a unique ability to develop friends.”

His ties to Israel and his contacts in the business world led Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat to name Applbaum special adviser on public-private partnerships for the city.

Stephan Miller, an American-born Israeli who worked for the mayor, got to know and admire Applbaum when Barkat appointed him to the board of the Jerusalem Foundation.

“They’ve done incredible things in culture and education,” Miller says. “In the private sector, every month Yitz is bringing new VIPs to Israel, decision makers who might not normally come to Israel but will come with Yitz and see a side only Yitz has access to. There’s no better guide to Israel than Yitz.”

Applbaum started out as a mentor to Miller, and then became a friend. Once, Miller ended up sleeping at the Applbaums’ Jerusalem home after a long Passover seder when the hour grew too late to make it back to Tel Aviv.

“He has incredible insights into Israel, and was so generous in including me,” Miller says. “I would base much of my success to his generosity along the way. He’s straight to the point and exists at a pace we can only dream of keeping up with.”

That pace has often meant time apart from Hilda, his wife of 31 years, and children Aaron, 24, Ariel, 21, and Miriam, 18, all three of whom attended Oakland Hebrew Day School and the Jewish Community High School in San Francisco, the latter of which will honor Yitz and Hilda Applbaum at a May 31 gala.

Though retirement is unthinkable to him, Applbaum is making more time for friends and other pleasures. But the work of strengthening Israel’s standing in the world still takes precedence.

Says Dardik, who now lives in Israel, “The truth is, he spends so much time on community building in the Bay Area, Israel and the larger Jewish community. If his goal in life was to make money, he would be exceptionally wealthy by now, but his goal is much bigger.”

“I try to make opportunities,” Applbaum says. “If you’re there, if you’re nice to people, then opportunities happen. I’ve always had a focus: my family, my religion and Israel. If you are consistent in your focus, then people will believe you.”

Dan Pine

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