27 October 2009

San Francisco Bay: Magnes Museum founder dead

On behalf of the Judah L. Magnes Museum, director and chief curator Alla Efimova informed the Magnes community of the death of Seymour Fromer, 87.

Fromer died in his home in Berkeley, California, on October 25 after a long illness. The internationally known Jewish educator and founder of the Judah L. Magnes Museum was 87.

Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, Fromer graduated from Stuyvesant High School, earned a B.A. from Brooklyn College, and did graduate work at Teachers College Columbia University. He worked in the Jewish communities of Essex County , New Jersey and Los Angeles where, in 1955, in the Hollywood Bowl he presented the opera David, composed by Darius Milhaud who conducted the orchestra. In Los Angeles, Fromer met and married his wife of more than fifty years, the poet and author Rebecca Camhi.

In the late 1950s, Fromer came to Oakland, California, and established the Jewish Education Council (the forerunner of today’s Center for Jewish Life and Learning), remaining in that post for a quarter century.

In 1962, the Fromers founded the Magnes Museum, first in modest quarters over the Parkway movie theater in Oakland and a few years later in the turn-of-the-century Burke mansion at 2911 Russell Street in Berkeley, its headquarters to this day.

Before Fromer’s retirement in 1998, the Magnes grew to become the third largest Jewish museum in North America. It has specialized in ceremonial art and posters and paintings of Jewish interest. Fromer expanded the collection by rescuing artifacts from endangered Jewish communities such as Czechoslovakia, Morocco, Egypt, and India.

In 1967, he established the Western Jewish History Center at the Magnes, the first regional Jewish history center in the U.S. and the most comprehensive. He also created the Commission for the Preservation of Pioneer Jewish Cemeteries and Landmarks, which restored and to this day maintains seven Jewish Gold Rush cemeteries in the California Mother Lode.

Especially in the 1970s and 80s, Fromer nurtured many young Jewish scholars and artists and was a key catalyst in the Jewish cultural renaissance in the Bay Area. He provided the impetus for such organizations as Lehrhaus Judaica, the Jewish Film Festival, and the National Yiddish Book Center.

Seymour Fromer is survived by his wife, Rebecca Camhi Fromer; their daughter, Mira Z. Amiras, Professor of Comparative Religion at San Jose State University; and grandchildren attorney Michael Zussman and Rayna Leonora Savrosa, a graduate student in the Parsons School of Design, both of Brooklyn, New York.

A memorial service open to the public will be held Tuesday, October 27, at 1PM at Congregation Beth El, 1301 Oxford Street, Berkeley.

The family requests that any donations in Seymour Fromer’s memory be sent to the Judah L. Magnes Museum, 2911 Russell Street, Berkeley, CA 94705.
For more information on the Museum, click here.

1 comment:

  1. I drove down to Berkeley today for the service. It was brief, but poignant. The overriding theme was his attention and encouragement to hundreds of people, perhaps more than a thousand, and a couple of the men he mentored spoke so touchingly of how he had affected their lives that I wept. Seymour received a pittance of a salary, never complained, always helped, and had big ideas. He started the museum on long lunch breaks. His daughter emphasized how he was a constant collector, not so much for the value of an object, but for the history it represented. A story was related that one day he was getting ready to drive to a conference in Arizona when his wife poked her head out the door and said, "Seymour, you forgot to take your money." Quick as a whip he replied, "Anyone can do it with money ..."