Shaar Zahav school founder Phyllis Mintzer dies at 79

Phyllis Mintzer did so much for the religious school at San Francisco’s Sha’ar Zahav that it was named after her just before she died.

Mintzer, of San Francisco, died Tuesday, Dec. 28. She was 79.

Mintzer was born Phyllis Opal on March 8, 1925, in New York City to a Jewish family with a deep involvement in the labor movement.

She entered college at the age of 15 and graduated at 18 from the Pratt Institute of Science and Technology with a degree in nutrition.

She learned from her grandmother and mother “the radical idea that a woman could do anything she put her mind to,” said her son Irving Mintzer, of Silver Spring, Md.

In 1943, she married George Mintzer, her childhood sweetheart, and shortly after, obtained a Hebrew teacher’s credential. She began a long career in Jewish education in New York before moving to the Bay Area in 1963, settling in Palo Alto.

From 1966 to 1972, she taught religious school and served as a youth group leader at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, which began her involvement at many of the Bay Area’s synagogues.

Before coming to Sha’ar Zahav, she taught and developed programs for Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El, Lafayette’s Temple Isaiah and San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel. She and George became Sherith Israel members when they moved to San Francisco in 1972. She also served as assistant director of Hillel at Stanford for several years.

And her influence was felt by many. She had the kind of personality that made everyone in her presence feel like the most special person in the universe, Irving said.

“She could really lock in on the heart and soul of each person, and bring out from them their own sense of strength even when they had a hard time finding it,” he said. “She opened new pathways for people, oftentimes pathways to things they didn’t think they were capable of.”

Mintzer never stopped learning herself. In 1979, she obtained a bachelor’s of science degree in Jewish education from Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.

In 1988, the Mintzers joined Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, where Phyllis founded the religious school.

“Phyllis loved being a Jew,” said Rabbi Camille Angel, spiritual leader of Sha’ar Zahav. “She also loved her family and her large extended family. And if ever there appeared to be a conflict at the intersection between family and Judaism, Phyllis was able to ‘let go’ of the constricting spot, liberate the sometimes-narrow tradition and reframe it in more progressive religious terms. I think this is what enabled her to embrace our diverse community.”

After years of working with b’nai mitzvah students, Mintzer decided to have a bat mitzvah herself. She had it on her 73rd birthday.

Irving recalled the 1998 event as “one of the most inspiring bar or bat mitzvahs I’ve ever been to. Many of her students who were having problems figured that if Phyllis could do it at 73, they could pull it off too.”

In 1999, she received the title morah derech, or master teacher, from Hebrew Union College.

“When I received the award,” wrote Mintzer at the time, “the young rabbi who introduced me noted that I had been his sixth-grade teacher, and I had an influence on his decision to become a rabbi. I feel deeply blessed.”

In addition to her son Irving, Mintzer is survived by her husband George of San Francisco; daughter Madeline Oden of Oakland; daughter Barbara Mintzer-McMahon of Moraga; nine grandchildren, one of whom predeceased her, and 14 great-grandchildren.

Donations can be made to the Phyllis Mintzer Educational Fund at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, 290 Dolores St., San Francisco, CA, 94103.

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."