Community leader Gerald Marvin Schoenberg dies at 90

He must have been the talk of the Prime Time Athletic Club in Burlingame: There he was, Gerald Marvin Schoenberg, even into his late 80s, swimming laps like a man half his age.

Schoenberg believed in keeping physically fit, and at least three times a week he was there at the club ready to dive in.

Friends and family of Schoenberg say he was always ready to dive into life, and when he died last week at the age of 90, he left behind a legacy of service to the Bay Area Jewish community.

“He was a kind, loving and gentle man,” says his daughter, Hazel Amir, now a resident of Israel. “He was a very easygoing person, and most people who met him were charmed by him.”

Yet he knew how to get things done. Schoenberg served for eight years as an assistant director of what was then the Jewish Welfare Federation (now the Jewish Community Federation) in San Francisco, and later as executive director of Congregation Emanu-El, a post he held for 26 years.

Born in Detroit and raised in a warm Jewish family in Cleveland, Schoenberg graduated from Case Western Reserve University and the Graduate School of Jewish Social Work in New York.

“He went in to social work because it was a field open to Jewish young men,” says Amir. “These were the jobs after the Depression.”

One night at a party he met Ruth Tamler. She was a native New Yorker and a Columbia University-trained social worker. The two hit it off and decided to get hitched. They were together for the next 65 years.

With the outbreak of World War II, Schoenberg joined the army. Because of his special training, he spent much of the war years in Arkansas working with shell-shocked soldiers newly returned from battle. He left the service with the rank of first lieutenant.

After the war, Schoenberg held posts with the Veteran’s Administration and the Jewish Federation in Newark, N.J.

In 1950, the couple moved to California with their daughter, lured west by a job offer from the Jewish Welfare Federation. The family bought a comfortable home in Balboa Terrace, where Ruth still lives.

It was his long-held executive position at Congregation Emanu-El that defined Schoenberg’s Jewish communal work. “The temple grew a lot during his tenure,” adds Amir. “He knew most of the prominent Jews in the city.”

Retired Emanu-El Cantor Joseph Portnoy remembers Schoenberg as the consummate gentleman. “He was professional, businesslike, always smiling,” says Portnoy. “In those days we were always struggling for a dollar, but he set up the books beautifully. He brought a different type of spirit, one of dignity, and he represented that.”

Though he considered his work important, Schoenberg had even more relish for family. “As parents they were devoted to me,” says his daughter. “I have lovely memories of being taken to the opera and the theater.”

Schoenberg had three grandchildren, and when he retired in 1985, they became his prime focus. “He used to have races with my son Daniel to see who could swim the most laps,” remembers Amir. “He would take my other son Elan [a pianist] to the temple and let him play the organ.”

Though he had retired from Jewish communal work, Schoenberg remained active in the Jewish world. His daughter married an Israeli man and moved to Israel, which reinforced his dedication to the Jewish state.

“He supported it before ’48,” says Amir, “and after the Holocaust, he felt there should be a state. He saw the importance and beauty of Israel, and made at least 20 visits.”

According to his daughter, retirement suited Schoenberg, who would pass the morning with a hot cup of coffee and the Wall Street Journal. It was the good life and, says Amir, “he earned it and deserved it.”

Adds his old friend Portnoy, Schoenberg’s life was about “dedicated service towards his people. His whole life was spent that way.”

Schoenberg is survived by his wife, Ruth, daughter Hazel Amir of Haifa, Israel, three grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Remembrances can be made to Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St., S.F., CA 94118.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.