Arlene Gopen, Peninsula Jewish activist, dies at 59

Arlene Gopen was the "roving ambassador" of Jewish Family and Children's Services in Palo Alto.

That's what Elliot Klein, Peninsula director of development and marketing for JFCS, called one of the agency's most dedicated volunteers, who died while swimming laps Monday morning in a Palo Alto pool. The Lost Altos resident was 59.

"She was a wonderfully outgoing person and knew everyone, so she was always interested in introducing JFCS to new people and making sure people knew what we did," said Klein.

Gopen was born Arlene Greenfield on Sept. 19, 1943 in New York City, the child of Hungarian immigrants. She received her bachelor's degree and one master's degree in education from the City College of New York. She later received a second master's degree.

In 1971, she married Charles Gopen, whom she met on Fire Island, and they moved to Sunnyvale after Charles was hired by a semiconductor company, later settling in Los Altos.

A mother of three — Joshua, Gabriel and Shaina — Gopen worked as an elementary school teacher before her children were born.

Over the years she became active as a volunteer, worked in the travel business and for the last four years, at the Jewish book and gift store bob and bob in Palo Alto.

Ellen Bob, owner of bob and bob, said Gopen was always quick to offer customers advice on gifts, especially for young adults, since she had three of her own. But what impressed her most, Bob recalled, was her commitment to her volunteer work, as she would frequently get phone calls on the job.

"I'd overhear her on the phone saying, 'I'll bring the dessert and napkins,'" said Bob. "Some people don't dirty themselves, but for her no job was too mundane or too lofty. She was always ready to jump in and do whatever was needed to be done to be successful."

At Los Altos Hills' Congregation Beth Am, she was a very active member, coming to weekly Torah study. Most recently, she served as co-chair of the membership committee.

"She was one of the first persons that a new member would meet or talk to," said Rabbi Charles Briskin of Beth Am, "and really welcomed people in with open arms."

Gopen also served on the board of directors of New Bridges, the Peninsula-based Jewish outreach organization. She was referred to the organization not knowing much about it, but it didn't take long before she was a staunch supporter, said board member Joanne Donsky.

"She was a really strong supporter of our vision," said Bobbi Bornstein, program director. "She was very vibrant and with a sunny kind of personality. Bubbly, and always had a lot to contribute."

Howard Gopen of Palo Alto, Gopen's brother-in-law, called Gopen a "tremendous hostess," who often had people over for Shabbat dinner. He also called her the epitome of a Jewish mother.

Gopen was also a supporter of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and friends recalled she was at the festival's screenings in Palo Alto every night last week.

JFCS was the beneficiary of most of her volunteer efforts. A quote from Gopen appears on the organization's Web site, "According to the Torah, we're supposed to be the caretakers of the earth. We're supposed to help each other. Just because the money happens to be in our bank account doesn't mean it's ours. A portion of those funds is supposed to be set aside for those in need."

Gopen was instrumental in starting delivery of kosher-for-Passover food for the needy under the auspices of JFCS, said Klein, adding that when it came to telling people about JFCS' services, she was one of its best advocates.

Her husband, Charles, died in 1995. She would let others know that JFCS' bereavement group helped her immensely, said Klein, adding that she was generous with both her time and her money.

Gopen was considering changing her name to Ariel, to signify moving into the next stage of her life, and in addition to that, she was studying to become an adult bat mitzvah.

She is survived by her children, Joshua of San Diego, Gabriel of Sunnyvale and Shaina of New York; her sister, Rosellen Gellar of Los Angeles; brother- and sister-in law Howard and Karen Gopen of Palo Alto; nieces Sarah Michelle Gellar and Anna Gopen; and nephew Daniel Gopen.

After her husband died, she started the Charles Gopen Foundation at JFCS, which has recently been renamed the Charles and Arlene Gopen Foundation by her children. Donations in her honor may be sent to the Charles and Arlene Gopen Foundation, c/o JFCS, 2150 Post St., S.F., CA 94115.

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."