Harold Firstenberg, Peninsula JCC founder, dies at 84

After his draft call was rendered moot by D-Day, Harold "Harry" Firstenberg directed his fighting spirit into shoring up the Jewish community at home.

A founder of the Peninsula Jewish Community Center in Belmont, he was one of comparatively few Jews living between San Francisco and Los Angeles in the 1940s. So the former Redwood City resident devoted himself to strengthening local Jewish institutions and creating new ones, said his daughter Beverly Frankel.

Firstenberg died of a stroke Aug. 19 at a nursing home in San Rafael. He was 84.

His activism reflected "the mood [among Jews] of the country at the time," according to Frankel, who flew in from her home in Bangkok, Thailand. Many wanted to compensate somehow for the losses of the Holocaust.

"He supported Israel tremendously but didn't work as much for Zionist causes. He wanted to help people here," she said.

When the Peninsula's first JCC was built, Firstenberg wanted it to be more than a meeting hall, so he pushed for a swimming pool and other family-friendly attractions.

"It was very much a part of my childhood" as well as that of Firstenberg's grandchildren, Frankel recalled.

The family patriarch also was a past president of the Peninsula B'nai B'rith Lodge and a longtime member of Temple Beth Jacob of Redwood City before moving to Marin County some 20 years ago, where he joined Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael.

His barn-building days, so to speak, had passed by that time and he settled into volunteer work for the Jewish Community Federation and the Anti-Defamation League.

By trade, Firstenberg was a professional putterer, his daughter said. The East Coast native settled in the Bay Area in the late 1930s to open a foods equipment refurbishing operation, Machinery & Equipment Co. of San Francisco.

The company opened several offices in the South of Market area, the last at Third and Townsend streets, before Firstenberg sold the operation, now located in Brisbane.

Off duty, the tinkerer developed inventions such as a prototype clothing dryer, a hydrofoil boat (propelled above water by air) and a kind of snowmobile for which the Army bought the patent, Frankel said.

Firstenberg's friendly demeanor and repairer's reputation had the neighbors stopping by with their broken toasters and other household appliances.

"He had a great sense of adventure to the unknown," said Frankel. "We grew up enjoying what we were going to find along the way, which is a tremendous gift to a child, learning that things can be uncontrolled and fun."

Firstenberg was a boating enthusiast and helped to recharter the once-defunct Richardson Bay Yacht Club. He also played the saxophone with a couple of small bands.

He is also survived by another daughter, Barbara Brown of San Carlos; son-in-law Michael Brown; seven grandchildren, Ken, Aaron and Karen Frankel and Heather, Daniel, Jacob and Rebecca Brown; and a companion, Rose Paul.

Firstenberg was preceded in death by his wives, Lillian and Natalie.

Memorial services were held. Donations can be made to the Parkinson's Institute for Research, 1170 Morse Ave., Sunnyvale, CA 94089.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.