Naomi Schwartz, JFCS counselor and educator, dies

Naomi Schwartz grew up singing and dancing. She met her husband of 42 years during a night of square dancing (he was the caller), and saw Woody Guthrie on her honeymoon.

"She had a beautiful voice," recalled Doron Shapira, cantor at Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. "I could always count on her support for all things musical."

Schwartz, who brought joy into people's lives through her musical talents in addition to providing a shoulder for thousands of men, women and children to cry on as a social worker and educator, died Dec. 28 in Palo Alto after a protracted battle with emphysema. She was 68.

Schwartz — who also was well-known by her married name, Levenson — was born and raised in Pittsburgh. When her son and daughter were 11- and 8-years-old, respectively, she went back to school, earning a bachelor's degree and then a master's degree in social work from the University of Pittsburgh. Schwartz became a social worker and taught in her synagogue, and continued this double-duty after she and her husband, Fred, moved to the Bay Area in the early 1980s.

"I know she listened well and was an incredible teacher with a very broad experience of life," said Schwartz's son, Dan Levenson. "She didn't believe that her way was the way."

Schwartz worked for a number of children's organizations in the Bay Area, landing at the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services in 1989. She counseled teenagers and served as a clinical supervisor for a decade, retiring last year due to health concerns.

"She had special insights," added Schwartz's daughter, Lisa Hoze. "She had a special way of understanding where you were coming from. I would find myself calling her and saying, 'I need to speak to Naomi Schwartz,' and then when she was done [giving advice], I'd say 'OK, now I need to speak to Mom.'"

Schwartz's work in the Peninsula community brought her into contact with Rabbi Marvin Goodman of Peninsula Sinai Congregation. Schwartz and her husband became members of the congregation in 1990, and she and Goodman developed a series of educational programs, including premarital counseling and a number of classes aimed at children and young adults.

"Naomi, in spite of –or maybe because of –her age difference with kids was always wonderful with them," recalled Shapira. "We had her over quite a few times to work with children and teens and adolescents in particular. They always opened up with her in a way they wouldn't necessarily with other adults.

"We used to do a series of Shabbat afternoon programs called Twig Benders from the rabbinic saying 'as you bend the twig, so grows the tree,'" continued Shapira. "This was a program for [parenting] very little children, how parents could lovingly rear children in a Jewish way. Those were well-attended; people would come to Shabbat services especially for that.

"Looking back at it now, I never really thought about this before, but we utilized Naomi for all ages: adults, adolescents, little ones and really little ones. I never saw someone she couldn't relate to, that's something that sticks out in my mind as well."

Judaism always played a major role for Schwartz, who lived within walking distance of Peninsula Sinai Congregation. She raised her children in what her son referred to as a "Conservadox" atmosphere and, after her husband died of cancer in 1995, formed a Shabbat group with five of her friends.

"Once a month we would meet and have Shabbos dinner," said longtime friend and fellow Peninsula Sinai congregant Belle Shayer. "Naomi was very knowledgeable in Hebrew, she could lead us in the various brachot. I miss that. She loved to tell stories and had a good sense of humor. She told wonderful jokes. She was comfortable to be with, and that helped in relating to people and putting them at ease.

"I really miss her company," continued Shayer. "I still, at times, think how nice it would be to give her a call and go to a movie. She loved Reuben sandwiches and we could go to Max's and get a Reuben. She was a good friend, and very much into her religion."

Naomi Schwartz is survived by her son, a traveling Appalachian string musician based in Vinton, Ohio; and daughter, a physical therapist living in Palo Alto. Services were held at Hills of Eternity Cemetery in Colma. The family requests that all donations be sent to Peninsula Sinai Congregation at 499 Boothbay Ave., Foster City, CA 94404.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.