El Cerrito psychologist, volunteer Sheila Becker dies at 62

Among other things, Sheila Becker knew how to work the phone.

When she decided to found the Yiddish chorus at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center, she called some 200 JCC members herself to tell them about it.

And when, along with Celia Concus, Becker co-founded REAP, the Revitalization and Enjoyment Through Active Participation program, at the BRJCC, they worked every phone list they could get their hands on.

"She was in personal contact with some hundreds of people in the community," said Dorothy Marsh, a co-founder of the BRJCC. "She was tireless."

Becker (nee Klarberg), an El Cerrito psychologist, died May 16. She was 62.

Becker's parents fled pre-Holocaust Vienna for Palestine. Born in Tel Aviv on Sept. 23, 1940, Becker then immigrated with her family to Montreal in 1950. She received her bachelor's degree from McGill University and a master's from the University of Montreal. Upon her graduation, she worked as a psychologist at the Montreal Oral School for the Deaf.

In December 1959 she met Alex Becker, who had survived the Holocaust but lost most of his family. "It didn't take us long to see we were very much the same person," said her husband, and they married in December 1960.

Before moving to the Bay Area, they moved around a lot, living several years in France, where Becker volunteered with the mentally ill, and Ottawa. They also had three children.

In 1981, they settled in El Cerrito, and a few years later, Becker took a job as director of the adult education program at the BRJCC. In 1983, she and Concus founded REAP, which brought hot kosher meals to the JCC for seniors.

Together, Becker and Concus visited every meal program in the Bay Area and decided the meals would be prepared at the Home for Jewish Parents in Oakland before bringing them to Hillel in Berkeley for final preparation and assembly.

Claire Rothenberg, who worked in public relations at the JCC at the time, recalled Becker fondly. "During lunchtime, she would go around to every table and speak to people personally so that everyone felt important."

In addition to the meals, REAP offered classes for seniors, many of them conceived by and taught by the seniors themselves.

For Helen Springer, who worked closely with Becker as a volunteer, "her genius was in her way of giving the membership ownership of the JCC."

Springer said that while Becker was usually the idea person, she'd then "let the volunteers run with it so they felt a very close part of the center and very responsible. She did that time and time again…She just had so much trust in the volunteers' ability to make the center a home."

Though she left the BRJCC before 1990, her influence on the JCC can be seen every day, said Joel Bashevkin, its executive director. "I see the ongoing programming as a result of her initiative," he said, "and the fact that what she had done is so longstanding."

In addition to REAP, Becker founded the Yiddish chorus at the BRJCC, which lasted more than 20 years, as well as a Yiddish theater group and a Yiddish conversational club.

"I wanted to make sure that the adult program didn't merely become a kindergarten for adults," Becker told the Bulletin in 2001, on the occasion of the chorus' end. "I wanted the program to honor these people's stories, because they were quite remarkable…I wanted the program to reflect those stories…stories that really contain a whole century of the Jewish experience."

After teaching and co-directing the early childhood training program at the Berkeley Adult School, she then went to work for Jewish Family and Children's Services of the East Bay, helping to resettle Russian emigres.

A "smart, professional, attentive, intelligent, beautiful woman" was how Anna Ryabkina, an emigre from St. Petersburg, described Becker.

Ryabkina and her husband, Alex Polovets, were among the many whom Becker helped resettle.

"Most of us spoke limited English and didn't know what to do. She gave us self-reliance, she taught us how to survive," said Ryabkina. "She understood our problems and concerns very well. She inspired us."

Even when she stopped working for JFCS, Becker kept in touch with those she helped.

Becker stayed active at the JCC. In 1999, as a volunteer herself, she helped coordinate other volunteers to found the JCC's Jewish library.

And in 1999, she put together a brief course on Jewish genealogy at the JCC for those wanting to investigate their own family trees. That was her passion in the last few years, said her husband, and the Beckers recently visited Europe to meet cousins previously unknown to them.

She also worked to get Weronika Tarazewich-Romanowska recognized as a Righteous Gentile by the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem. Tarazewich-Romanowska saved her husband's and his mother's lives during the war.

While the Beckers never belonged to a synagogue, Alex Becker said his wife had a traditional Jewish funeral at the family's request, presided over by Rabbi Yehuda Ferris of Chabad of Berkeley.

In addition to her husband of El Cerrito, Becker is survived by her mother, Toby Clermont, of Montreal; son Jeff of Cupertino, daughter Eleanor Melles of San Mateo, son Marc of Marina Del Ray, and four grandchildren.

Donations can be made to the charity of your choice.

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."