Its been a very colorful journey – After 35 years, Magnes director Fromer stepping down

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After giving birth to the Judah L. Magnes Museum and nurturing it for 35 years, director Seymour Fromer is loosening the parental strings and stepping down.

The Berkeley museum "feels like my baby but the baby has grown up," Fromer says, "and I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing the baby become a mature young adult. Sooner or later, it has to be on its own."

In truth, the 74-year-old Fromer probably won't stray far from his cherished offspring. Once he officially retires and becomes director emeritus in November — the board is currently conducting a nationwide search for a replacement — he plans to maintain close contact with the organization and its activities.

As director of the museum whose membership has grown to 2,400, "the schedule was so crowded with the operational necessities — the meetings, the staff, the money raising," he says. "When some of that burden is off my shoulders and onto the new director, I feel I'll have the time to focus on other things."

Those other things, Fromer says, will include helping the board enlarge the museum endowment, and finding additional East Bay facilities to accommodate public programs and house the museum's holdings. Much of its Judaica collection, the third largest of its kind in the country, is currently in storage because of space constraints.

"A lot's in storage but at least it's saved," Fromer stresses. "We brought it from countries like India, Egypt, Tunisia, Czechoslovakia. At the time these things were rescued, there was a danger they would be lost."

The quest to preserve precious Jewish artifacts has taken Fromer and wife Rebecca — who has worked alongside her husband to build the museum — on years of exotic escapades through North African marketplaces, Europe and the Middle East.

The pair tell stories of adventure and intrigue — from braving the dangers of Libyan martial law to bring home a pair of rimonim, or Torah ornaments, to coping with flak in Islamic North Africa, when Rebecca accidentally walked in front of her husband on a narrow street.

When women on one side of the street began to hiss and men on the other side crowed like roosters, the Fromers realized they had broken a strict cultural taboo.

"It's been a very colorful journey and I must admit that I'm not tired of doing it. I enjoy doing it," Fromer says. "It gave me a wonderful opportunity to do what I like to do and contribute something to Jewish life and to society."

Under Fromer's tutelage, the Magnes has developed into a highly respected institution whose major offerings include a collection of Judaica that boasts everything from Moroccan Jewish wedding garments to prayerbooks and holiday artifacts from around the world.

The museum's Western Jewish History Center contains an extensive repository of materials on Jews in the 13 Western United States, reflecting life from the Gold Rush Era through the present.

In addition, the Magnes develops traveling exhibits, sponsors annual Jewish video competitions and poetry contests, and publishes books with Jewish themes. Though a majority of members are from the Bay Area, members also hail from Sacramento, Southern California and other states.

Fred Weiss, president of the museum's board of trustees, credits such successes to Fromer's dedication, as well as the enthusiasm and ardor he has instilled and encouraged in those who work with him.

The Magnes "has been a labor of love on his part, and on the part of everybody who has worked with him," Weiss says. "That spirit of adventure and courage and interest and desire to really do high-quality work…that's what Seymour has fostered."

The museum evolved from the Fromers' love for Judaica. Both educators — she was a high school teacher, he was director of the East Bay Jewish Education Council — the couple began more than 35 years ago to show items from their private Judaica collection at the now-defunct Oakland-Piedmont Jewish Community Center on Sheffield Avenue.

Other local families added their Jewish artifacts to the exhibit as well, and the collection soon grew so large the Fromers had to rent a loft above the Parkway Theater on Oakland's Park Boulevard. That space, too, overflowed.

In 1967, the museum acquired its current building at 2911 Russell St., where the Fromers continued to pursue their vision of introducing the public to Judaica, and rescuing artifacts from endangered and dwindling Jewish communities around the globe.

Weiss is certain that vision will continue to propel the museum, even after Fromer retires. "Seymour is the central spirit," the museum president says. "He's always going to be with us."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

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