Ernest Rosenthal, quiet leader and lifelong learner, dies

Those who knew Ernest Rosenthal all describe him as a gentle soul.

A quiet but effective leader of several Jewish organizations, Rosenthal, of Daly City, died Aug. 13 in Belmont. He was 82.

Born in Konstanz, Germany, on July 23, 1920, Rosenthal was the only child of a couple in the textile business.

When he was 15, he fled to Rotterdam, Holland, and stayed there three years, learning the watch business. He was able to come to the United States in 1938, and his parents joined him in 1940.

In New York, he worked in sales in the watch business.

During World War II, he served in the 10th Mountain Division in the Aleutians and in the War Department Intelligence Service.

Milton Jacobs, a friend for more than 35 years, used to kid Rosenthal about his service in the Mountain Division, since it was known for being made up of burly men like Rambo or James Bond "who swoop down on skis," as Jacobs described them.

Rosenthal would say, "The guys from Mississippi don't know how to ski, I did."

In 1951 he married Ellen Davis. They had three children, Stephen, Roberta and Sidney.

Ellen Davis died in 1962, and in 1963, he married a widow, Laura Stein. The couple moved to the Bay Area from New York so Rosenthal could join a cousin's business and "to get a fresh start," said Laura Rosenthal.

Rosenthal was vice president at Mo Dorman Office Furniture in San Francisco. The family settled in Daly City, and joined Congregation Beth-El, but left for Beth Sholom when Beth-El became Reform.

Deeply committed to the Jewish community, Rosenthal served as president of the Anti-Defamation League, district four of B'nai B'rith and most recently, of Sinai Memorial Chapel. He also was active on the Hillel council as well as on the national board of Hillel.

Jacobs, who served as president of many of the same organizations, called him an all-around great person, who always wanted to do the right thing. "He wasn't a dynamo or the kind to give talks, but was a quiet, effective leader, and was in that class of really devoted leaders."

He also served on the board of the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, and was on the board when Marc Klein, the current editor and publisher, first arrived.

"Ernest was one of the kindest and sweetest men I've ever met," said Klein. "He took me under his wing and helped to introduce me to the local Jewish community, its institutions and its movers and shakers."

Laura Rosenthal described her husband as a doer and a giver. "He would always give above his means and did the best he could at all times," she said.

They had one daughter together, Audrey, who said that she and her siblings always felt proud to be known in the community as his children.

Audrey Hyman described her father as a nurturer, much more so than most men of his generation, and as an avid reader, interested in everything. Though he never finished college, he was interested in history and Judaism, and anything that would expand his mind.

His nightstand was always covered with books and magazines, and he was fluent in four languages: English, French, German and Dutch, and almost fluent in Hebrew.

"He was interested in anything that made him grow," said Laura Rosenthal. "He was constantly learning, and as he got older, he became more of a religious Jew. For him, it was always a matter of broadening the mind."

He also loved simple pleasures such as watching the sunset from the driveway, said Hyman.

"We were so proud of his accomplishments in the community," she said. "We would rather have had him home and not always going out to meetings, but at the same time, that yoke of leadership was passed on and the expectation that we do things for the community."

He also relearned the Torah portion from his bar mitzvah so he could chant it when he turned 70, said Hyman. "He did it almost every year after that," she said.

Rosenthal is survived by his wife, Laura of Daly City; son, Stephen of Petaluma, daughter, Roberta of San Francisco, daughter, Audrey Hyman of Alameda and four grandchildren. His son, Sidney, died in 1995.

Donations in his memory can be made to the Anti-Defamation League, 720 Market St., Suite 800, S.F., CA, 94102, or the Alzheimer's Association of Northern California Chapter, 2065 W. El Camino Real, Suite C, Mountain View, CA, 94040.

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."