Mitzvah mission to Mexico ends tragically for volunteers

When a plane carrying six volunteers providing medical aid to villagers in Mexico crashed Saturday, four members of the Bay Area Jewish community lost their lives, including the pilot, Dr. Marvin Weinreb, a former president of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay.

Weinreb, 74, a retired Oakland dermatologist and longtime volunteer with Los Medicos Voladores (Flying Doctors), a Los Gatos-based medical volunteer group, was piloting his twin-engine Cessna when it crashed during a landing attempt near a military base in Ensenada.

In addition to Weinreb, the Jewish victims include Dr. Edith Loewenstein, 84, a resident of Rossmoor in Walnut Creek and a retired general practice physician; Ellen Goldstein, 68, of Oakland and Palm Springs, who volunteered as an interpreter; and dentist Michael David Cala, 30, of Foster City.

Evette Bryand, 29, of Santa Clara, who was Cala's dental assistant, and coordinator Deborah Wayne, 48, of San Ignacio, Mexico, were also killed in the crash.

The 26-year-old Flying Doctors had been providing medical and dental aid to residents of San Ignacio, a village in southern Baja.

"It's hard to comprehend how tragedy like this can take away people who are in the middle of performing such a mitzvah," said Ami Nahshon, executive vice president of the East Bay federation. "It challenges our understanding of the meaning of life."

Both Loewenstein and Weinreb had made multiple humanitarian trips to Mexico with Flying Doctors, and both were involved in area Jewish organizations.

Milt Camp, a pilot and former Hewlett-Packard engineer who founded Flying Doctors, was in Ensenada at the time of the crash. He knew both Loewenstein and Weinreb well.

"They were two absolutely great people," he said by phone from his home in Gold Country. "There was nobody finer than they were in the effort, the work and their dedication to helping the people in Mexico and in other places."

In addition to heading the East Bay federation and its foundation, Weinreb was a former president of Temple Beth Sholom in San Leandro and the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, and served for 12 years as a member of the Hayward Unified School District board. After his retirement from private practice in Castro Valley, he and his wife, Ilene, a former Hayward mayor, spent six months on a humanitarian mission in Tanzania.

The Weinrebs were honored by the American Friends of Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Israel for their humanitarian efforts, and by Friends of the Agency for Jewish Education of the Greater East Bay (now the Center for Jewish Living and Learning) for their support of family and teen education.

"Marvin was one of the most Jewishly literate, respected, kind, wise, lay leaders we've ever known in our community," said Nahshon. "Long after he concluded those leadership positions [with the federation], he stayed on everybody's Rolodex as the guy you called for advice with a thorny problem, and yet he was one of the most self-effacing, mild-mannered individuals I had ever known."

Rabbi Harry Manhoff, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Sholom, agreed.

"I would say if he wasn't a lamed vavnik [one of the 36 righteous people in the world], he was about as close as I ever met in my lifetime.

"He was kind of unofficially my rabbi," he added. "I've written the eulogy 83 times now, and it's never good enough."

Seymour Fromer, director emeritus and co-founder of the Magnes Museum, said Weinreb had been involved since its inception in 1962. "He was a loving, dedicated person and he had a deep knowledge of Judaism and Jewish life. He based his activities on that knowledge and that dedication."

Deborah Weinreb Jacobsen, one of Weinreb's three daughters, said her father was the son of a refugee who had escaped from an Eastern European prison after World War I. Weinreb had a strong drive to give back to the community, in part because his immigrant father had been a recipient of assistance.

"He felt very blessed," said Jacobsen, a resident of Corte Madera.

Curt Weil, a past president of Flying Doctors and a Palo Alto investment counselor, knew both Weinreb and Loewenstein well. Weinreb, he said, "was small in stature but big in heart — an intense man." His daughter Rachel, a Sacramento pediatrician, had also flown with the group, and Weinreb had recruited Goldstein, who was fluent in Spanish, and her late husband, Herbert. "If you had any skills that were useful to Flying Doctors, Marv would get you drafted. Giving was such second nature to him."

Weil, who is a pilot with the group, said Loewenstein had flown on his plane twice.

"She was a real trooper with a great sense of humor, someone who had magic hands when dealing with kids, who is always teaching everyone — even me, and I'm not a physician. It didn't matter. I was a pair of ears, so she taught me. I think that and her sense of humor are what I remember the most."

Shoshana Eliahu, festival and trips coordinator at the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center in Walnut Creek, also knew Loewenstein well. The physician became active at the JCC, which is adjacent to Rossmoor, soon after moving to the retirement community about 15 years ago with her late husband, Dr. Hans George Loewenstein, who died 10 years ago. The two had worked together as general practice physicians in Pittsburg for more than 40 years.

"She was very helpful to me in Israel," said Eliahu, who said Loewenstein had pitched in when one of the seniors became ill on the trip, about nine years ago. "She was a great lady, very gutsy, very outspoken, with high principles. She believed in what she did."

Helen Loewenstein of Lafayette, who is married to Edith's son Peter, expressed similar thoughts. Her in-laws came from a long line of medical professionals and met in a pathology laboratory at San Francisco General Hospital.

They learned Spanish so they could speak with their clients. Both, she said, did "a lot of pro bono work. They never charged what other people charged."

Loewenstein also volunteered at Indian reservations, chaired the medical committee at Flying Doctors and was the first woman president of Rossmoor's B'nai B'rith chapter.

"Edith was unlike any person I've ever known in that she really loved a challenge," Helen Loewenstein said. " She loved learning." Before taking a recent trip to the former Soviet Union, she studied Russian, continuing her studies after her return. In addition, Loewenstein played tennis a couple times a week, and participated in art classes at Rossmoor, where her paintings graced the walls of her home.

Ellen Goldstein, who was a friend of both Loewenstein and the Weinrebs, also had longtime connections in the East Bay Jewish community. Born in Oakland, she was a member of Temple Beth Abraham with her husband, who died 1-1/2 years ago. She divided her time between Oakland and Palm Springs, where she belonged to the Desert Synagogue.

In addition to volunteering with Flying Doctors, the Goldsteins also spent a month every year in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, providing aid to schoolchildren. Goldstein, who was active in a number of philanthropic organizations, wanted to continue the commitment she and her husband had made to helping those in need, said her son Ted Goldstein, a resident of Yorba Linda. Among their causes were the American Jewish Hospice and the Orangutan Foundation in Borneo.

Cala was on his first trip with Flying Doctors. He and his wife, Robyn, who is also a dentist, recently bought a practice in Santa Clara and were expecting a baby. A graduate of UCSF Dental School, he was a member of the American Dental Association, the California Dental Association and the Santa Clara County Dental Society.

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Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].