Esther Reutlinger, 91, endowed East Bay organizations

Philanthropist Esther Reutlinger, who along with her husband, Jacques, endowed local Jewish communal organizations, died Thursday of last week after a long illness. She was 91.

A Berkeley resident for nearly 40 years, she died in Tacoma, Wash., where she had lived for several years.

In 1987, the Reutlingers arranged with the national Hillel Foundation and Koret Foundation to renovate and modernize the 40-year-old building that housed Berkeley Hillel and Lehrhaus Judaica. The renovated structure, called the Reutlinger Center, has become a center of East Bay Jewish life.

In addition, the couple established a major foundation to support Berkeley's Judah L. Magnes Museum. They also provided major funding for the Esther and Jacques Reutlinger Gallery, where major changing exhibits are displayed.

"The whole institution has benefited over the last 20 years from their interest, their dedication, their funds," Seymour Fromer, executive director of the Magnes, said of the couple.

He recalled Esther Reutlinger as "deliberate, methodical. She thought things through. She could always be relied upon for very sound advice."

Born Esther Lurie, Reutlinger spent the early years of her youth in Brooklyn before moving with her family to Buffalo, N.Y. There, she became active in the youth arm of the Israeli Labor Party and met former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir on several occasions.

"When I was living in Buffalo, I became interested, naturally, in everything Jewish," she has said. "We were what they called Yiddishchisten, that is, people who promoted the Jewish language."

In 1933, Reutlinger traveled to Palestine, where she met her husband, a native of Belgium, through mutual friends. They married on Lag B'Omer the following year.

Three years later, the Reutlingers left prestate Israel. With its few green trees or fields, they reasoned, it was not a healthy place to live. They moved to New York and to San Francisco soon afterward before heading across the bay to Berkeley.

Involved in the military transportation business for years, the pair later enjoyed great success in real estate.

"She was quite a gal," her husband said. "She was a very quiet person, more or less the opposite of what I am. But she was also a shaker — in a different way."

Reutlinger's grandson, John Riley, also remembers his grandmother's humility. An avid reader, music lover and world traveler, "she was a brilliant woman who really did not seek to show off how smart she really was," he said. "She just operated quietly and wanted to do good things.

A funeral for Reutlinger was held last Friday in Tacoma. A local memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 8, at Berkeley Hillel, 2736 Bancroft Way.

She is survived by her husband, son Mark Reutlinger, daughter Regine Wilson and grandchildren John Riley and Eliana Reutlinger.

The family asks that contributions in Reutlinger's name be made to the organization of one's choice.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

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