Ernie Alexander, quintessential working man, selfless volunteer

When Temple Beth Jacob in Oakland needed a new building in 1954, Ernie Alexander did not offer to make a presentation to board members. Nor did he start planning a capital campaign.

He picked up a hammer.

“My father and a group of other merchants got a contractor’s license and every weekend they worked on the synagogue,” said Arthur Alexander, Ernie’s son who lives in Philadelphia.

The Park Boulevard building is one of many legacies Ernie Alexander left behind. The lifelong East Bay resident died Friday, Nov. 23, in his hospital room surrounded by his wife of 64 years, children and grandchildren. He was 88.

“There is a tradition in Judaism, that God takes the righteous on Shabbat,” said his son, Rabbi Hanan Alexander, who lives in Haifa. “My dad opened his eyes, saw us all there and tried to say something, but he couldn’t speak.

“I joked he was trying to say ‘Go home.’ He wouldn’t have liked the fact that so many were paying so much attention to him, but for somebody else, he would have thought it was terrific. He was a person who was entirely focused on the needs of other people.”

Ernie’s selfless nature showed up in his professional life as well as his Jewish life.

He served on the board of the Center for Jewish Living and Learning (and its earlier incarnation, the Jewish Education Council) for more than 35 years. He helped get the Midrasha Community High School program off the ground, and continued to serve on its board of directors through this year.

He helped found, and often volunteered for, Tel Shalom Burial Association in El Sobrante, where he was buried. He also served on the board of Lehraus Judaica and was a longtime member of the Reform Congregation Beth El and the modern Orthodox Beth Israel, both in Berkeley.

“Even rabbis came to my father for advice,” Hanan said.

Ernie was “a working man,” his children said. He was born in Alameda and after high school served in the Army for three years, from 1943 to ’47. He was stationed in Hawaii, Germany and the Philippines. He worked in the Supply Corps repairing trucks and Jeeps.

Just before he enlisted, he met his wife, Fran, whom he married before he went overseas. They first crossed paths in an elevator in an Oakland department store, where Ernie worked as a jack-of-all-trades and Fran had applied for a bookkeeping job.

Ernie liked Fran instantly, but “because the manager of the fur department was a jokester and had showed me a picture of a woman with three kids that he said was Ernie’s family, I ignored him when he tried to have a conversation with me,” Fran recalled. “Then finally, Paul, the manager, felt sorry for him and told him what he had done.”

After the war, Ernie and Fran moved from Oakland to Kensington and Ernie returned to the retail business. He first owned the Factory Store, a men’s clothing shop on 10th Street and Broadway in Oakland. (Temple Beth Jacob used the upstairs office space on a temporary basis when the building was under construction.)

Ernie took over the store in 1947 after his uncle died — knowing that the store’s income would have to support his family and the wife and children his uncle left behind.

Soon after, his sister’s husband died. She lived next door, and Ernie didn’t think twice about “adopting” her two sons, who to this day consider him a father, Hanan said.

“He collected people, my father,” he added. “That is, he always had somebody who needed taking care of, and he’d take care of them.”

That compassion was not just reserved for family. The Factory Store was located in what was then considered a rough part of town, with its share of poverty and crime.

“There was no public assistance. Storefronts in that part of town often had broken windows,” Arthur said. “But my father’s store was never broken into. Everybody knew my father was the person in that community who took care of everybody.”

In 1965, when he lost the lease during the city’s redevelopment, Ernie opened Alameda Variety. On Sundays, he would go to the Napa-Vallejo flea market to sell his goods. His children took turns going with him to “the country,” as they called it.

“He could sell anything, my father,” Hanan said. “And he never sold by overselling. He sold to people by showing them respect. So he had a loyal following of customers, from the poorest of the poor to the richest of the rich. He treated them all the same.”

When Ernie retired in the late 1980s, he started spending more time volunteering for Jewish agencies. By that time, his children were grown, and he and Fran started traveling to spend one holiday with each of them.

He also started taking Talmud classes, something he’d always wanted to do but didn’t have time for. He had gone to Beth El for decades, but since his daughter and grandchildren went to Congregation Beth Israel, he joined a second synagogue and signed up for classes there.

He also attended Shabbat services every Saturday, and since he was a Levi, got an aliyah each week as well.

“I feel so lucky that he got to do the things he really wanted to do,” said Irene Resnikoff, his daughter and education director at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael.

Ernie Alexander is survived by his wife, Fran Alexander; sons Arthur, Hanan and Robin Alexander; daughter Irene Resnikoff; 12 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

His funeral Nov. 25 drew close to 400 people.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.