Veteran Petaluma Jewish leader Ann Barlas dies at 80 years old

Ann (Egber) Barlas arrived in Petaluma in 1940, dressed to the nines, all the way down to the straps on her high heels. The chicken farming town was clearly the antithesis of Barlas' Philadelphia style.

But Barlas was determined to make the most of her situation. After all, she had blazed a trail clear across the country to join Leon Barlas, the man who had courted her with love letters.

On July 24, she died next to him. She was 80 years old.

"She died in the house she loved with the man she adored. She had a wonderful life," said her daughter, Shelley Barlas Nagel of Saratoga.

Wonderful, but challenging. Raising two Jewish children in rural California wasn't an easy task for the Polish immigrant, who was raised Orthodox in Pennsylvania.

So Barlas kept her watch on Eastern Standard Time for the first two years she lived in California. And each week she traveled by ferry to San Francisco to purchase meat for her family's kosher home.

Yet she never complained. She never waited for change. She was "absolutely a trailblazer, not an ounce of being a clinging vine. She spoke up. She activated herself. She took charge," Barlas Nagle said.

As an activist, Barlas was a constant fixture in Petaluma's small Jewish community.

She was the first woman president of Conservative Congregation B'nai Israel in Petaluma. She continued to serve as a board member for 54 consecutive years, until her death.

Barlas organized chapters of Hadassah and B'nai B'rith Women, acting as president of both organizations many times over. In addition, she was president of the Mothers' Club of B'nai Israel's Sunday School and the Petaluma Jewish Council.

In spare moments, she worked part time in her husband's feed company.

Seven years ago, at the age of 73, she cemented a lifelong commitment to her people and faith by becoming bat mitzvah. She and a handful of other women studied together, sharing their simcha in a group ceremony.

"It was beautiful," Barlas Nagle said. "My mother loved Judaism and she davened [prayed] beautifully. Of course, she was singing louder than everyone else, as usual.

"She had a beautiful voice and loved to sing and chant, especially in shul. She was there every week."

Many B'nai Israel congregants speak of Barlas' devotion to the Jewish community. Irving Newman, a member of the congregation who knew Barlas since 1963, spoke of her setting tables for the weekly kiddush.

"She was a mainstay. A doer, not a thinker," Newman said. "When there was something to be done, refurbishing the kitchen or just buying new supplies, she did it. She didn't wait for a board or a committee; she just got the funds and did it.

"She was kind of an activist in that way. Of course, sometimes it got her into trouble."

No serious woes, he added, laughing. Barlas was often thought of by members as someone who helped keep the synagogue doors open, raising money through rummage sales and pitching in as necessary.

"She did whatever she could, but she also accepted what she couldn't change and was grateful for what was given to her," Barlas Nagle said. "It's hard to follow in her footsteps. They were so big."

Barlas is survived by her husband, Leon, of Petaluma; her children, Shelley [and Michael] Barlas Nagel of Saratoga and Marshall [and Carole] Barlas of Petaluma; grandchildren; nieces and nephews.