Don Chaiken, dedicated East Bay philanthropist, dies at 86
In his role as a philanthropist, Donald Chaiken routinely met with leaders of nonprofits seeking grants. According to his daughter, Chaiken would consider the request, look his interlocutors in the eye and often say “no.” Then he’d add with a smile, “You didn’t ask for enough.”
A successful real estate developer, Chaiken wanted to give back, becoming a generous donor in the East Bay Jewish community and beyond. Chaiken died on May 8 in his Lafayette home after a series of strokes. He was 86.
“There definitely was the legend of Don,” said Lisa Tabak, senior director of philanthropy for the East Bay at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. “He was a very smart businessman, growing his home-building business for decades. At the same time, he was incredibly generous. He was at the top of his home-building game and the top of his philanthropy game. You didn’t have one without the other.”
He supported many local Jewish organizations, including the Contra Costa JCC in Walnut Creek, Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, Camp Newman in Santa Rosa and the Reutlinger Community senior living center in Danville. He was among those who vehemently pushed to preserve Reutlinger as a Jewish institution after it was sold to a nonsectarian management group in 2020.
Chaiken was also active in the Jewish Federation of the East Bay and its endowment known as the Jewish Community Foundation, both now part of the S.F.-based Federation. He served on the East Bay Federation’s board, and he was president of the foundation from 1999 to 2002.
Along the way, he became a role model for Jewish community leaders.
“How many people was he a mentor to?” his daughter Julie Chaiken asked rhetorically. “He was a mensch in every way and led by example.”
Born in Brooklyn in 1936, he was the son and grandson of East European Jewish immigrants. One grandfather drove an ice truck. The other ran a five-and-dime. His father drove a cab, and his mother waited tables at a soda shop.
“Brooklyn was a Jewish neighborhood,” his daughter said, “so in every way it influenced him. All of his friends were Jewish. Family was always important.”
When he was 12, Chaiken and his family relocated to Miami. He became the first person in his family to attend college, with assistance from a free in-state tuition program. He graduated from the University of Florida with a business degree, became a CPA and worked for national accounting firms. In 1960, he moved to Los Angeles to further his career.
There he met the love of his life, Carole Dela Rosa, over a game of bridge. They married in 1966 and had three daughters. Eventually, most of Chaiken’s accounting work focused on real estate. Settling in San Leandro in 1970, Chaiken launched a new career when he joined Singer Housing Company, which later became Citation Homes.
There definitely was the legend of Don.
In 1982, he founded Davidon Homes, which became one of Northern California’s largest privately owned real estate development companies. The company eventually had 200 employees and built more than 7,000 homes and apartment and condominium complexes across Northern California.
Davidon’s success enabled Chaiken and his wife to make a major shift in their charitable giving. The couple established the Donald and Carole Chaiken Foundation in 1999 and created the first supporting foundation of the Jewish Community Foundation of the East Bay.
“He came from the federation world,” Tabak said. “He was a major donor to the federation and its annual campaign. He also solicited, met with community members and asked them to give. He set the bar really high. With his supporting foundation, he started to give to lots of other organizations, primarily Jewish organizations. There isn’t a Jewish space he wasn’t in.”
Sandy Colen, a past president of the Jewish Community Foundation of the East Bay, served with Chaiken for decades and considers him an unparalleled mentor.
“I was younger than almost anyone else on the board, so I was looking to various community leaders for guidance and direction,” Colen said. “I had a lot to learn. I looked around the room and it was clear Don was respected for his intellect, his practicality and deep commitment to philanthropy. When he spoke, everyone paid attention. He was a skilled negotiator and a consummate problem-solver.”
More than 40 years ago, the Chaiken family moved to Lafayette, where they became active members of Temple Isaiah. Chaiken was instrumental in capital campaigns that remodeled the main sanctuary and a separate education building. He also helped establish and build the Contra Costa JCC.
The couple had philanthropic interests outside the Jewish community and beyond the Bay Area. They supported Planned Parenthood, LGBTQ rights groups, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, ORT America and organizations that promote religious pluralism in Israel.
“He really liked projects and digging in to help solve problems,” said Julie Chaiken.
Ami Nahshon, former CEO of the East Bay Federation, said in a eulogy that Chaiken founded the Donald Chaiken Building Industry Technology Academy. The program offers a four-year high school curriculum designed to provide students with the knowledge and skills needed to pursue a career in the building industry.
Chaiken kept up his work schedule long past normal retirement age. “He absolutely loved everything about what he did,” his daughter said. “He was always proud of building good quality houses.”
She recalled that her parents loved to travel. They visited more than 100 countries and all seven continents. Her father also loved to gamble. “We joked that the family would take vacations, but only where there would be a casino,” she said.
In 2013, he suffered a blow when Carole, his wife of 46 years, passed away. Later in life, he found love again with his companion, Frances Greenberg, who passed away last year. Until his very last days, Chaiken remained engaged, still calling the shots for his business and his philanthropy.
“He was a wonderful friend and mentor and an incredibly well-respected community leader who left a phenomenal legacy,” Colen said.
He is survived by daughters Julie Chaiken of Tiburon, Dana Chaiken of Reno and Jen Chaiken of San Francisco and four grandchildren.