Berkeley muralist drowns at 25

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

Before Jordan Hoffman left for his Hawaiian vacation last month, his plans for a mural at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center were well under way.

He would paint a biblical scene based on symbols of the 12 tribes of Israel. It would be huge and bright and would decorate an outside wall of the center.

"He thought a mural overlooking our playground would be great, rather than looking at Longs Drug Store," said George Clark, assistant director of the BRJCC.

Tragically, the 25-year-old Berkeley resident never realized his vision for the mural. He drowned Nov. 18 while swimming in the Kauai surf.

The accident ended a life of creativity and Jewish commitment.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Hoffman studied art at the nearby Taylor School of Art, associated with Temple University.

There, he specialized in oil paintings, and his works, said former girlfriend Lisa Barish, were of "epic proportions. He liked to make big statements with his art, which he often used as a platform to express his awe of Judaism. A huge wall was his ideal canvas."

That's what Hoffman had to work with at the BRJCC in North Berkeley. He planned to donate his time for the mural project, which will now be continued in his name.

"Jordan was one of the most enthusiastic people I ever met, especially [with] his Judaism," Clark said.

In fact, before moving to the Bay Area in 1993, Hoffman lived in Israel, where he worked on kibbutzim, studied at a Jerusalem yeshiva and served in the Israel Defense Force. While in Israel, said Barish, Hoffman established a deep bond to Judaism, one that he expressed upon returning home.

Most recently, he worked crushing grapes for Baron Herzog kosher winery in San Martin, a step that required his commitment to being Shabbat observant.

"He loved his `mission' — to make holy wine, wine which would contain the blessings of Jews around the world," said Olan Mclane, who worked with Hoffman at Baron Herzog.

During Hoffman's stint at the winery, in fact, he sought to deepen his spiritual ties to Judaism, spending Shabbats making a mikveh in freshwater pools in Santa Cruz and sampling services at various Bay Area minyanim.

"Jordan's work at the winery was his performance art, imbued with his fresh take on life and yearning for transcendence," Barish said.

More than 300 people attended Hoffman's funeral in Philadelphia and a memorial service was held in Berkeley. There, said Barish, "we all agreed Jordan was a tzaddik [righteous one]."

Tonight, Chabad of San Francisco will hold a Shabbat service and dinner in his honor starting at 4:45 p.m. at 2950 Anza.

In addition, Tuesday's Chanukah lighting in Union Square will be dedicated to Hoffman.

Hoffman is survived by his parents, Becky and Richard Hoffmann, and grandparents Michael and Mildred Bleckner.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.