Sylvia Zuckerman, helped found Beth Am, dies

Sylvia Fisher Zuckerman was a real “Yiddishe mama.” If she signed up to help cook for a dinner or event, people could count on there being enough for a small army.

“And poor Ted had to shlep it everywhere,” said Bernie Arfin of Palo Alto, a friend of the couple, who was an usher at their wedding 51 years ago.

Zuckerman, who lived in Los Altos for 38 years and recently relocated to Pleasanton with her husband, Ted, died in Fremont on Tuesday, Nov. 30. She left specific instructions behind not to mention her date of birth or age.

Born Sylvia Fisher in Dublin, Ireland, and raised in Belfast, she was one of seven children in an Orthodox family.

Shortly after World War II, a cousin who lived in America paid a visit and suggested that she and another sister come to live in California. They came in 1950 and settled in San Francisco. Soon a brother joined them, and the three siblings lived together.

As a young, single woman, Fisher joined a group of British Jewish émigrés called the “Piccadillyites.”

At a social event at the then-Jewish Community Center in Burlingame with a group called the Peninsulites, she met Ted Zuckerman. She made such an impression that the next time he saw her, he asked her out right in front of the other young man who had escorted her. Zuckerman proposed marriage after their second date, and they married in 1954.

According to Ted Zuckerman, 22 marriages resulted out of the social events between the Peninsulites and the Piccadillyites. “And only two divorces, which is a damn good record. As a group, we still meet twice a year, and travel together,” he said.

After a short stint in San Francisco, the Zuckermans moved to Mountain View, and, along with his parents, they joined a group to start a new synagogue, Beth Am.

While they attended services sporadically in Menlo Park, that group soon disbanded and moved to Redwood City.

“We all met in my mother’s living room, in Palo Alto,” recalled Ted Zuckerman. “We decided there are enough Jews to form a congregation in Palo Alto, so we split up the phone book six ways and looked for Jewish names.”

As Beth Am grew more Reform, the Zuckermans helped found the Conservative Kol Emeth in Palo Alto. The couple later moved to Los Altos and moved back to Congregation Beth Am, where for a time, Sylvia Zuckerman worked at the gift shop.

Sidney Akselrad, rabbi emeritus of Beth Am, said that though Sylvia Zuckerman grew up Orthodox, she still found Reform Judaism very meaningful and was proud of her Jewishness.

She was also a member of Hadassah.

The Zuckermans owned an import business, and traveled widely. Sylvia Zuckerman was in China 12 times, her husband said.

Arfin recalled her devotion to her husband and children, noting that when her husband was diagnosed with diabetes, she watched his diet “like a hawk, especially in restaurants.”

In addition to her husband, Zuckerman is survived by daughter Chary Steele of Pleasanton; son Sam Zuckerman of Paradise; brothers Ted of San Bruno, David of San Mateo and Stanley of Roseville; sisters Mona Cohen of Concord and Barbara Lieberman of Longmont, Colo.; five grandchildren and three step-grandchildren.

Donations can be made to Congregation Beth Am, 26790 Arastradero Rd., Los Altos Hills, CA 94022.

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."