East Bay federation presents awards to two volunteers

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Rena Brickman Rosen and John Gertz, both Jewish activists from Berkeley, received the 28th annual Moses M. and Celia R. Lesser Young Leadership Awards from the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay.

The awards, established in 1967 by Richard Lesser in memory of his parents, were announced at last week's annual meeting of the federation at Oakland's Claremont Resort Hotel.

The two winners, both 44, were selected by previous Lesser Award honorees. The Lesser Family Endowment Fund, held by the Jewish Federation Endowment Foundation, will send Rosen and Gertz to the general assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations, which meets in Boston in the fall.

The announcement was a surprise, but Rosen became a bit suspicious when her husband flew in early from a conference to meet her at the Claremont.

Gertz, however, was taken aback when the emcee started reading his resume from the podium.

"I was talking to my wife and not paying the closest attention when I heard bachelor's at UCLA and master's at University of Haifa and I did a doubletake," he said.

Rosen said the timing couldn't have been better. Her son Michael, 17, who has been studying in Israel, will be a freshman at Harvard.

Gertz, who also has family in the Boston area, said, "Obviously, I was honored, but…I don't do what I'm doing to put another plaque on the wall. I'm engaged in community work because I consider it vitally important."

Coincidentally, both winners have also received national Wexner fellowships. In addition, they had served together on the board of El Cerrito's Tehiyah Day School, where Rosen is a past president, and both were appointed to the federation's new executive board and have served on its board of directors.

Rosen, an attorney at the law offices of John J. Carniato in Lafayette, chairs the Agency for Jewish Education, soon to be the Center of Jewish Living and Learning, and chaired a task force for the federation's Jewish Continuity Commission.

Gertz, who is president of Zorro Productions, a Berkeley film and TV company, chaired the federation's Flights to Freedom program, the concluding segment of Operation Exodus, which assisted Russian emigres. He currently serves as vice president of the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center.

"Both Rosen and Gertz have exhibited outstanding leadership in a broad spectrum of areas in the community, from social service activities to Jewish education,"said Todd Stettner, associate director of the East Bay federation.

For Rosen, who grew up in an Orthodox home in Brooklyn and continues to be observant, Judaism has always been at the core of her life. She met husband Mordecai Rosen in kindergarten at Yeshiva of Flatbush, which she attended before going on to Barnard College.

Moving to the East Bay 18-1/2 years ago was a major adjustment. But Rosen continued to stay involved in Jewish organizations — through Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley, and through her children's schools. A former Jewish education teacher and principal, she served the Hebrew school at Beth Israel and the now-defunct Hillel Academy before getting her law degree five years ago at University of San Francisco.

One of her dreams is an East Bay Jewish high school. When son Michael was at Oakland's College Preparatory School — where he was the only kippah -wearing student on campus — he got the school to change its graduation from Saturday to Sunday. His sister Gabriella, 14, is now at the school. The Rosens also have a third child, Rafi, 11, at Tehiyah.

While Rosen grew up in an observant home, the Los Angeles-born Gertz' Jewish awakening came through "a fluke of fate." On Oct. 1, 1973, he met an Israeli for the first time, a roommate of a friend from UCLA.

"On Oct. 6, the Yom Kippur War broke out and the Israelis [living in the United States] went to Israel to fight," he said. "In the spirit of the moment, I hopped on the plane with them."

Gertz later made aliyah, serving in an elite combat unit. He returned to the United States with plans to complete a doctorate at University of California at San Francisco.

"Instead I started a motion picture and television production company and ended up being a minor movie mogul," he said.

Gertz, who played a major role in defeating a Berkeley measure to make the Jabilyah refugee camp a sister city, has also served as East Bay chair of Israel Bonds and on the board of Berkeley's Temple Beth El.

"My initial approach to Judaism was entirely Israeli-centered," he said. "Now my personal focus is on the Jewish community of the East Bay," particularly to build educational and cultural bridges between the two countries.

Gertz, who is married to Sandy Curtis, is the stepfather of Danny, 18, and Deborah, 16, and the father of Michelle, 9, a student at Tehiyah.

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].