Donny Friend recently vacationed in Thailand, but he didn’t leave his heart or his Judaism in San Francisco. Instead, he took them with him. One Friday night at an island resort, Friend baked challah for his family, as well as several puzzled yet delighted Thai guests.
“I got the ingredients,” he said, “and was able to bring joy where we were.”
That spirit of portable Judaism typifies Donny Friend, 64, and his brother Bob, 72. The two philanthropists and community activists received Lifetime Achievement Awards this week from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council at the agency’s 2016 gala, titled Behind the Scenes.
Other honorees at the Feb. 24 event included Michael Pappas, the executive director of the San Francisco Interfaith Council, and the leaders of Informed Grads, a student-led organization that fought, and ultimately defeated, an anti-Israel measure at U.C. campuses.
The gala was held at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.
The Friend brothers are longtime donors to JCRC, and both believe strongly in its mission of outreach to the non-Jewish community. They said they are hoping the gala helps shine a light on the good work of JCRC.
“JCRC for us has always been a place where we feel comfort in knowing that our Jewish back was being watched,” said Donny Friend. “The key aspect is in the relationships they developed throughout the community. They work on those relationships not just in times of crisis but other times as well.”
Added JCRC executive director Doug Kahn: “At a time we see more challenges then ever in the Bay Area community, on Israel and other fronts, that kind of civic engagement is critically important, and at the heart of what JCRC and what Bob and Donny stand for.”
Born of one of San Francisco’s most philanthropic Jewish couples — their late parents are the namesakes of the Eugene and Elinor Friend Center for the Arts at the JCCSF — Donny and Bob Friend have carried on the family tradition of giving. For example, Donny today serves as president of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, while Bob has played a variety of major roles with Summer Search, a youth mentoring nonprofit.
Donny Friend said the practice of giving and volunteering was handed down to the brothers.
“We saw the importance of it as kids and grew into those roles as adults,” he said. “We saw the importance of being supportive, not just by writing checks but also creating new things.”
Their father, the son of a Polish-born immigrant, built a San Francisco clothing business and, later, a family real estate company. Both Bob and Donny Friend went into that family business.
The Friend family has done much for the local Jewish community, taking lead roles in capital campaigns at the Jewish Home and the JCCSF, as well as supporting American Friends of Hebrew University, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and other institutions.
They also gave back to their hometown, funding projects for the zoo and other landmarks through the Recreation and Parks Department.
“Our Jewish community is no good if we’re the only ones doing well,” Donny Friend said. “Our basic Jewish values teach us to care about everyone. We reach out and feel their pain, also share in their joy. That’s the beauty of the relationships created by JCRC. They help keep us successful.”
Before attending the gala, Donny’s sons, Benjamin and Jason Friend, said they want to honor their father and uncle by following in their footsteps and bettering the community.
“They come from a very honest place with each other,” Jason Friend said. “It’s from the heart. They support each other beautifully.”
Meanwhile, Donny Friend said he and his brother prefer to avoid the limelight. Despite that reticence, the brothers are eager to stand up for the JCRC and its role in making the Bay Area a haven for the Jewish community ever since the Gold Rush days.
“The Jews have a history of doing well in San Francisco,” he said. “[The city] always had an open attitude, and whatever we can do to help facilitate that, we will do.”