Danger! Adventure! Judaica!

Seymour Fromer doesn’t think of himself as much of a swashbuckling Indiana Jones.

True, over the years, his quests to seek out and rescue endangered Jewish treasures of the world took him to far-flung and remote lands, occasionally placing him in potentially risky situations.

And yes, Fromer, who was once held for questioning in Morocco, has a loyal following from a cadre of young academics he nurtured through the decades.

But with characteristic modesty, the gravelly voiced and professorial co-founder of Berkeley’s Judah L. Magnes Museum brushes aside suggestions of any film-screen heroics surrounding his career.

“There’s very little swashbuckle,” said Fromer, who with his wife, Rebecca, in the early 1960s started building piece by piece what has come to be known as the country’s third largest collection of Judaica.

Rather than being driven by a thirst for thrill-filled adventure, the Fromers were motivated by a fierce desire to preserve precious objects from vanishing Jewish communities and to make them accessible as educational tools for schoolchildren, scholars and other members of the public.

“It’s sort of a response to the Holocaust,” explained Fromer, now 81 and an active but emeritus director at the museum housed on a tree-lined street near the Claremont Hotel. “So much was destroyed during World War II. Anything that could be saved was precious.”

While East Coast museums were involved in saving such objects, “there was no mechanism, no organization devoted to that” in the West, he said.

Both educators, the Fromers decided to create that mechanism, taking about 10 trips to Holland, Germany, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Spain. Together with college students and other museum supporters, they traveled to shrinking Jewish communities and were entrusted with centuries-old Jewish textiles, arks, illuminated ketubot, manuscripts, Sabbath lamps and other items.

“Whenever we had a vacation, we would go someplace where there were Jewish historical items to be saved, and other people did the same,” said Fromer.

“If we didn’t rescue these things, they might be lost forever.”

The resulting collection now totals some 11,000 pieces of Judaica and fine arts, 10,000 rare and other Jewish-themed books, along with papers, photos and other documents in an attic-level Western Jewish History Center.

Last year, the museum itself appeared endangered.

An ill-fated merger with the Jewish Museum San Francisco and financial woes led to deep staff cuts and community cries that the Magnes was getting a raw deal from the combined institution. In June, the two museums severed their ties and the Berkeley site is now once again charting its own course.

To mark its reopening with the first public show in eight months, the Magnes will display 130 pieces selected by Fromer in an exhibit starting Sunday, Oct. 26: “Brought to Light: The Storied Collections of the Judah L. Magnes Museum.”

Voicing optimism about the museum’s future, Fromer doesn’t want to dwell on the recent troubles. “I guess you can call it a mistake,” he said of the 18-month merger. “It was a good effort, reasonable effort to have one Jewish museum that could have the support of all of Northern California. It just didn’t pan out that way.”

He is reluctant to point any fingers or criticize. “We all have our problems, failings,” he said.

On a recent visit to the Magnes, Fromer, who arrived in 1953 to head a new East Bay Jewish Education Council, plays the role of a wise and patient teacher. He gives one detailed account after another of how a particular object, document or painting came into the museum’s possession.

“Now this is a real story,” he said of one historic collection acquired by way of Modesto.

He’s referring to the papers and photos of Koppel Pinson, a Queens College professor who was sent to Europe after World War II by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to locate Jewish cultural items looted by the Nazis.

Pinson’s widow moved to Modesto, where she died in the early 1990s. One day Fromer got a call from someone connected to Pinson’s estate who announced, “There’s all this material. We’re going to throw it away.”

Realizing the significance of what was headed for the trash, Fromer quickly drove out to the Central Valley with a colleague to retrieve the papers. One of Pinson’s scrapbooks will be shown this month. “It’s an example of the museum as a magnet,” said Fromer.

Over the years, he added, the museum increasingly became the go-to place for donations as word of its existence and mission spread.

“Just today, a man came in and said he had three paintings given to his father by a man who survived Auschwitz,” Fromer recently recounted. “He wanted these paintings to go to a good place. It just happens every day.”

Each object that winds up within the museum’s walls, he said, “carries the history of a family or a community or a congregation.”

In the earlier days, the Fromers took trips overseas specifically to rescue Jewish objects that many families were forced to abandon when they moved away.

Back in the late 1960s, Jews were leaving their North African homelands with little more than the clothing on their backs, explained Rebecca Fromer. “In Egypt or Morocco, for example, it was OK for Jews to leave, but they had to leave their belongings and their wealth behind,” she said. “They wanted the hundreds of years that they’d been in this country not to be lost to the world.”

In Morocco, the couple received a Jewish groom’s wedding caftan from a Muslim who had been given it by its Jewish owners when they moved away.

“They themselves entrusted to me those things that were entrusted to them,” Rebecca Fromer said.

At first, the Fromers displayed a mini-collection of Jewish objects in a $75-a-month loft above Oakland’s Parkway Theater.

“It was very informal,” recalled Rebecca Fromer, describing how she’d sit on the floor with youngsters to discuss and pass around artifacts.

“Sundays, it was so crowded, you practically couldn’t move.”

At one point, the couple fell behind in the rent. When their landlord stopped by presumably to collect it, he was so impressed that he let the Fromers stay on for free.

In 1967, the museum was ready for more space and moved to its current location on Russell Street.

Both the institution and Fromer himself attracted many young scholars, who now credit the museum founder with helping to launch the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival among other cultural organizations.

“I proudly call myself a protégé,” said Fred Rosenbaum, founding director of Lehrhaus Judaica, a Jewish studies program based in Berkeley.

He said Fromer gave him the impetus to start that center. “There’s no one who’s affected my life more.”

Added Rosenbaum: “The real key to understanding Seymour is the way he affected many, many young people who came under his wing. I’m just one.”

Harold Lindenthal is another. “This guy’s a genius,” says Lindenthal, now a businessman in Hartford, Conn. “A genius and no ego.”

Lindenthal, who previously worked professionally for Jewish organizations, said Fromer “just sort of saw the direction you were going in and moved you in that direction.”

He still chuckles over how Fromer approached him one day while he was sitting in the Magnes library back in the 1970s and recruited him to help pick up priceless artwork that was being lent to the museum for an upcoming show.

“Here was Seymour who had known me for a week or so” and was sending a young Lindenthal to some of the most affluent homes in the Bay Area to collect on-loan work by Chagall, Modigliani, Soutine and others.

“It could have been one of the greatest art heists of all times,” he said of that expedition. “We could have just kept on driving.”

Lindenthal didn’t, and he wound up working for the museum for a time as a publicist. “It was an absolute utter joy to work for him,” said Lindenthal, who remains close to Fromer. “He brought a spirit to the whole endeavor that was just terrific.”

Lindenthal is among those troubled by the Magnes’ recent problems. “It’s a pity what’s happened,” he said. “It’s an amazing institution.”

Acting Executive Director Joanne Backman, who was hired in March and supervises a full-time staff of five, remains upbeat about the museum’s future, which includes eventual plans to relocate to downtown Berkeley. “I think there’s so much enthusiasm for the success of the place,” she said. “People feel so fondly toward this institution, its history, its collection.”

For his part, Fromer is grateful for that community support as well as for a financial lift from former board chairs Warren Hellman and Daniel Offit. When they resigned from the now-defunct board in January, they made a $183,000 donation that left the Magnes debt-free.

“Really, it was a very statesmanlike gesture,” Fromer said.

Fromer is confident the museum will survive. “I feel very good about it,” he said. “The public responded and encouraged us to rebuild.”