Principal, Shir Hadash founder Tom Baer dies at 49

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Even after Tom Baer stopped serving as president of Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos a decade ago, fellow congregants still turned to him often for advice and guidance.

In Baer, they knew they had a reasoned, intelligent listener who was able to make people feel their concerns were important to him.

"He was a real leader. People were attracted to him," said Shir Hadash's Rabbi Melanie Aron. "When people had difficult decisions to make regarding the congregation, they always consulted him. He was someone people turned to with their problems."

Baer, principal of Mountain View High School, died Aug. 23 at home in Los Gatos after a nine-month battle with cancer. He was 49.

At a memorial service Aug. 24 attended by some 500 mourners, Baer's family, friends and colleagues spoke of a man with high energy and optimism who inspired many with his devotion to family, education and community.

A founding member of Shir Hadash together with his wife of 30 years, Cynthia, Baer was instrumental in planning and raising funds for Shir Hadash's new sanctuary and renovated school on Shannon Road, which were dedicated earlier this year.

"Tom got excited about whatever he was working on," Rabbi Nahum Ward-Lev, a former Shir Hadash spiritual leader, said at the memorial service.

"He would even joke about how often he would express enthusiasm about this project or that. Tom's enthusiasm was genuine and good and Tom's unbounded energy motivated others and made them feel good."

Outside the Jewish community, Baer served as a member of the Los Gatos Planning Commission and on numerous community task forces and civic committees.

Born in San Francisco, Baer graduated from Cupertino High School in 1966 and received his bachelor of arts from Dartmouth College in 1970. On returning to California, he earned his teaching credential and a master's degree in education from San Jose State University.

Baer taught at both Homestead and Lynbrook high schools. After earning his administrative credential, he served as an assistant principal at both Lynbrook and Fremont high schools and in 1995 was appointed principal at Mountain View High School.

Friends and students recall Baer's ardent dedication to his work and his philosophy of teaching: Teach by example. He worked long hours, they say, driven by the belief that he could always do more to help young people.

Last year, Baer found himself in the midst of a controversy when he canceled a new course on genocide from the fall curriculum at Mountain View High School. The course would have covered the Holocaust, Armenian and Cambodian genocides, the Native American experience and ethnic cleansing.

But Baer, who lost family in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, worried that the course lacked sufficient planning and context. He tangled over the matter with veteran teacher Frank Navarro.

As it turns out, the class was fleshed out and Navarro will teach it this year.

Baer is survived by wife Cynthia; daughters Rachel and Emy; his mother, Gertrude; and a sister, Lillian Baer.

The family asks that contributions in Baer's honor be sent to Hospice of Santa Clara Valley, 1150 Bascom Ave., San Jose, CA 95128; the National Conference of Christians and Jews, 777 N. First St., San Jose, CA 95112; or Congregation Shir Hadash, 16555 Shannon Road, Los Gatos, CA 95032.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

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