Mar 4, 2020

What Are A Jew’s Dues?

Marion Leff Carries on Her Father’s Devotion to Federations

By Ed Goldman
Had I not invited Dr. Marion Leff to lunch, where we talked about the Jewish Federation of Sacramento (and other Jewish federations throughout the state and country), I wouldn’t have learned the following:

(a) There’s a wonderful community-building and culture-reinforcing program for Jewish millennials and younger called One Table, which encourages them to meet for Friday night Shabbat (Sabbath) dinners; and

(b) A blood vessel had burst in my left eye.

The latter was the lead-off topic, of course, since Leff is a retired family physician (who happened to train my own, Dr. Dana Hawkins). She’s also married to another retired family physician, Dr. Stan Leff. 

She made a quick assessment: “Any pain or vision problems?” I shook my head no. “Well, you’re going to look in the mirror and get a little shocked because there’s a pretty big drop of blood in the corner of your eye,” she said. 

Naturally, this made me wonder whether Leff was just being polite while, in reality, I was actively hemorrhaging to a degree that would qualify me as a guest cadaver on one of the two dozen “CSI” shows. 

“It’s probably nothing to worry about and will go away in a few days,” Leff said with a reassuring smile, not having heard any of my panicky thoughts. I’m not sure how many ways I found in the rest of our chat to ask a variation of “Are you sure?” and “Really?” before sanity reclaimed me.

Me: Give it to me straight, Doc. This is the big casino, isn’t it?

Sanity: She said you were just fine, Idiot. She’s a doctor, remember?

—Okay. We’re back. 

In her 38 years of practice, Leff cared for a diverse clientele: from the elderly to moppets, from patients of varied sexual orientation (including “a number of trans people,” she said), to all races, from the affluent to the homeless. 

During that time, she and her husband managed to produce and raise two now-adult kids: Adam, who’s in the U.S.’s Foreign Diplomatic Corps—he’s been posted to Madrid, Milan and Riyadh but is currently based in Washington, D.C. (the most foreign environment I can think of these days); and Molly, a social worker who trained at New York University. Thanks to these two overachievers, Marion and Stan have three grandchildren. 

Photo by Ed Goldman.

Marion’s mom, Francie Weintraub, who’s 98, is in an assisted-living facility in the leafy Sacramento suburb of Carmichael. “She moved from Florida to California at the age of 96,” Leff says proudly. “That took a lot of courage and strength.” 

During the hectic years of their separate-but-equal medical-practice building, Leff says there was little time left for her or Stan to volunteer for the Jewish Federation of Sacramento. She says this concerned her because working for a Jewish Federation is practically a legacy: Her late father, suddenly out of work at 50, was hired to run the Jewish federation of Portsmouth, Virginia. “I saw how much his work meant to him, uniting the Jewish community to help people, and I think federation work got in my blood, too,” she says.

In the U.S., Jewish federations come in all sizes and endowments. There are nearly 150 of them and they all share a purpose of providing social services, principally to the Jewish community but in most cases, with a far broader reach in their surrounding neighborhoods. They raise a combined $2 billion a year to provide meals, counseling, cultural and education programs. 

As you might guess, the most fiscally comfortable federations in California are in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego. Covering a 13-county area and given three out of four stars by Charity Navigator—the national rater of charities and nonprofits for their financial health, accountability and transparency—the Jewish Federation of Sacramento has annual revenues of a bit more than $700,000. For comparison’s sake, the Jewish Federated Council of Greater Los Angeles has an annual budget of more than $151 million.

But Sacramento’s federation is hardly a poor stepchild. It boasts a number of endowments—including one from the Leffs, which, under the group’s transportation fund, provides transportation for the elderly—and explains the Lions of Judah philanthropy award pin she’s proudly wearing in the photo.

“In medicine, Stan and I served the entire community,” Leff says. “This other work”—Stan does volunteer work for the local Albert Einstein Residence Center, a senior living facility—“is mainly for our own cultural community.

“I think of federation work as being Jewish dues,” Leff adds. ”It’s what you do to return something to the people who nurtured you.”

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).