Art history professor, Netivot Shalom founder dies at 61

Even in the later stages of ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, Harvey Stahl's greatest comfort was going to shul.

"We talked to the rabbi about where he could sit, and about a private room he could go to when his lungs needed suctioning," said his wife, Marissa Moss. "The congregation was very accommodating."

Stahl, a founding member of Berkeley's Congregation Netivot Shalom, died on June 22 at his Berkeley home, three days after his 61st birthday.

The art history professor at U.C. Berkeley was a model of how to overcome disability, said Rabbi Stuart Kelman, spiritual leader of Netivot Shalom.

"I have this memory of him when he had come to shul with his oxygen machine, and plunked himself down on the stage at the JCC," said Kelman, referring to the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center, where Netivot holds its services. "He plugged himself in and was davening. You could hear this whir of his machine, but he wasn't embarrassed by it at all."

Kelman said that while Stahl suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis for about seven months, he stuttered, which might have prevented others from pursuing a profession that required a lot of public speaking.

"He not only overcame his disability about speaking but went on to show the rest of world that he could do this," said Kelman. "That it's part of natural life that people are like this. He showed us all that having a disability is having a disability, and you get over it."

Stahl was born to immigrant parents in Dallas, in 1941. He earned a bachelor's degree from Tulane University and then studied at the Louvre in Paris on a Fulbright scholarship.

He earned his Ph.D. from New York University's Institute of Fine Arts.

His specialty was the Romanesque, Gothic and Later Byzantine periods. He was an expert in French illuminated manuscripts.

Stahl began his career working with the Cloisters in New York and the Metropolitan Museum's Department of Medieval Art, and he taught in New York until he came to the Bay Area to teach at U.C. Berkeley in 1980.

According to Moss, his wife of 17 years, they looked around for a synagogue, but nothing was a good fit until they stumbled upon the just-formed Netivot, where they became regulars.

"He just couldn't stay away," said Moss.

According to Netivot's first president Celia Concus, as an early board member, Stahl played a major role in revising the congregation's bylaws.

"He was deeply committed to preserving Jewish heritage and to transmitting that to his children," she said.

Stahl was a wine enthusiast and also appreciated good food.

"He pushed everybody to expect more out of life than what we would ordinary settle for," said Kelman. "He was such a sensitive human being, fun-loving and risk-taking."

Stahl was diagnosed with ALS in 2001, after returning from time spent in Rome with his family.

The disease progressed quickly, but he remained a fixture at Netivot. "On the days when he couldn't come, a friend made him a tape of the service," said Moss.

In addition to his wife, Stahl is survived by his sons, Simon, Elias and Asa of Berkeley; brothers, Don and Sidney Stahl of Dallas and sister, Helen Rosenberg of Dallas.

Contributions may be made to Congregation Netivot Shalom, 1841 Berkeley Way, Berkeley, CA 94703.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."