Globetrotters offer Bulletin a lifetime of expertise

Stepping off the Berlin-to-Sao Paulo steamer in 1937, young Ilsa Loewe was in for the shock of her life.

The German family that agreed to "rescue" her from the Nazis by taking her on as a maid had embezzled all of her money and abandoned her.

"Those were Hitler times," recalled Loewe, a volunteer at the Bulletin — and, seemingly, every other Jewish organization in the Bay Area. "A Jewish girl, I was not able to pursue an education, no one would teach me a trade. So I was employed as a maid."

Loewe worked as a maid in Brazil for another dozen years, finally emigrating to Sao Paulo's American namesake, St. Paul, Minn., thanks to funding from Jewish Family and Children's Services.

More than half a century later, Lowe smiles as she mentions her current volunteer work for the S.F.-based JFCS. And the Anti-Defamation League. And the Jewish Home. And the Jewish Community Center of S.F. And, of course, the Bulletin, where she has helped with mailers several times a week for the past three years.

"There comes a time when you ask, 'What do you want to do for the rest of your life?'' said Loewe, who quickly endeared herself to the Bulletin staff with her habit of bringing in platters of cakes, muffins or strudel on a weekly basis. "You can no longer be gainfully employed. And no one wants to sit around and mope. For me, I called the Jewish Home and said, 'I'm alone with no children or grandchildren. Can you use me?' And they said, 'Come on down!' I've been coming on down ever since."

Loewe says she most enjoys the company of her fellow Bulletin workers, and stresses that older folks can greatly benefit from volunteering.

"It gives you an occasion to be productive and contribute," said Loewe, last year's Montefiore Senior Center Volunteer of the Year. "And when you do that, you don't think about your aches and pains or 'the big L' — loneliness. When I volunteer as a friendly visitor at the Jewish Home, people say, 'Ilse, I'm so glad you're in my life.' I come out of there 10 feet tall."

Loewe isn't the only multi-agency volunteer at the Bulletin. Ruth Opper spent 10 years working with Project Open Hand, helping to feed destitute AIDS patients, before taking over the Bulletin's photo file room a year ago.

Originally from Vienna, Opper escaped Austria via Kindertransport in 1938. A Bay Area resident for 53 years and a U.C. Berkeley alumna, Opper says she gets a surprise or two every week culling through the Bulletin's voluminous photo files.

"There's a photo of [Camryn] Manheim, you know, that big girl from 'The Practice.' I was really surprised to see that," said Opper, who also volunteers at the Asian Museum and the Strybing Arboretum in Golden Gate Park. "I would say that's probably my favorite. But lots of them are surprising."

Like, for instance, the jolt Opper received on her very first day, when she discovered photographs of her younger daughter, social worker Jody Reiss.

"She has a whole file. I'd never have expected to find those," said Opper. "It's fascinating to come across certain pictures in that collection."

Loewe and Opper have joined a veteran staff of Bulletin volunteers. Jennie Green has donated her time to the Bulletin for 15 years, while John Levin has served for 14 years and Hilda Frankenstein for 13.

Harry Fink, a former master tailor, has put his nimble hands to work cataloging Bulletin back articles for nearly nine years now.

Fink, who fled from Berlin in 1939 to Shanghai, found himself at the Bulletin after "climbing the walls" following his retirement. Along with his wife, Ruth, Fink enjoys reading, music, the theatre, ballet, opera — "the whole shpiel."

"I don't care what it is I do," said Fink of his volunteer work, "as long at it helps the Bulletin and keeps me busy. Then it helps both of us."

Frankenstein also hails from Berlin, escaping with her family in 1935, first to Montevideo, Uruguay, and then Los Angeles. Also a volunteer at the Palace of the Legion of Honor art museum and with the San Francisco Symphony, Frankenstein says she most enjoys the company of others while volunteering — but not too much company.

"I was at the Legion of Honor the other day and, boy, was it packed! It wasn't even fun, it was so crowded," she said. "But I most enjoy the company. If you're alone a lot, you enjoy the company."

While many of the Bulletin's volunteers fled from Europe in the 1940s, Levin found himself heading to the continent. Born and raised for the first 18 years of his life in Manchuria, he immigrated to the United States, where his collegiate career was cut short by the Army. He served for three years overseas.

A longtime civil servant and bank worker, Levin works mostly with Bulletin renewals.

"It's interesting, and I know the people around here for a long time," said Levin, a B'nai B'rith lodge president who is active in Jewish war veterans associations. "It's a nice place with nice people. And I feel that I'm doing something for communal service."

Finally, Green, the dean of Bulletin volunteers, is also the only American-born worker on the crew. Hailing from the Bronx, Green has been living in San Francisco –and reading the Bulletin — since 1934.

"This place has grown considerably in size and personality," said Green, whose quick wit and active demeanor belies the fact that she is 90 years old. "I've been a subscriber practically since I've been here."

When she isn't answering phones at the Bulletin, Green spends as much time as she can with her "two little girls," great-granddaughters Amalia and Sarah, who turn 2 this month.

"I enjoy being with the staff," said Green. "There's a lot of camaraderie that goes with a diverse group of people."

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.