85 years and 7 continents later

Not many 85-year-olds ride in a Fourth of July parade, but Gretel Gates isn’t one to stand on the side of the road and watch life pass her by.

So she rides on the Temple Israel of Alameda float every year — and stays active and involved in other ways.

“Just keep on going,” Gates advises. “When people ask you to do something, don’t give them all kinds of excuses why you shouldn’t do it. Say ‘Sure, I’ll be happy to do it.'”

Also, she says, always exercise. “I swear by water aerobics. If I don’t keep active, I’d just vegetate in the house, and that’s the end of me. I’m not ready to do that.”

Gretel, who lives in Alameda, stays engaged through myriad activities. Not only is she involved in the local women’s shelter and Hadassah, but she also has as a deep commitment to Alameda’s Temple Israel, where her late husband, Rabbi Gunther Gates, served for 34 years.

Nowadays, it is Gretel Gates who is a constant presence, greeting all who enter the Reform synagogue’s doors and attending just about every function at the temple.

“Having her so involved makes it more like a family,” says Temple Israel’s Rabbi Allen Bennett. “Everyone in the congregation knows her, and if they don’t, they’re not paying attention. Every congregation should be so lucky to have someone as upbeat, dedicated and devoted as Gretel Gates.”

More than any of her activities, Gates is an inveterate traveler. “I’ve been to all seven continents,” she says proudly.

“She’s a lot of fun to travel with — she likes to go all day and isn’t the type of person who just sits and hangs out,” says granddaughter Suzi Scher. “She likes to explore and visit things. For her 75th birthday, she took the whole family to Mexico. On a Caribbean trip, she swam with the dolphins, and when she went to Australia, she rode a Harley.”

Gates is a woman who speaks her mind and goes for what she wants, as evidenced by her recent 85th birthday party.

“We decided to have a party and talked about doing something at the house, and she said, ‘No, I’ve already reserved the temple. I decided that if you’re weren’t going to throw a party for me, I’m going to have my own party,'” says Scher. “We did an around-the-world party. It was set up so there were seven continents for food. People did a lot of things for her — some changed their trips to be there.”

Clearly, family is important to Gates, and in her 85 years, she’s seen the importance of keeping her family together.

Born in Germany, Gates and her parents came to the United States in the 1930s, leaving behind their home, business and most of their belongings.

“We were very lucky,” she remembers. “My dad made a statement when Hitler came to power in January of 1933 that I will never forget. He said that the Jews of Germany will be happy to get out of this country with what they can carry on their backs.”

Her family settled in New York, where Gretel went to high school and did most of the work at home while her parents earned a living. She married at 19, moved to a chicken farm in New Jersey, and had two daughters, Sylvia and Brenda, but was widowed in 1947. Five years later, she married Rabbi Gunther Gates and had two more children, David and Mimi.

Gretel’s deep commitment to her family has had a major impact on Scher, who looks up to her grandmother as a role model. “How she approaches life is her true inspiration for me,” Scher says. “Her family is very important to her, and so is her community. She builds friendships and long-term relationships — she loves that sense of community.”

Being a rabbi’s wife can be a mixed blessing, and Gates has seen many changes at Temple Israel over the years. Rabbi Gunther Gates, who died in 1981, was the synagogue’s spiritual leader from 1947 up until the time of his death at age 68. Because the rabbi position was part-time back then, he was also a middle and high school teacher.

“I had to get used to being the rabbi’s wife, I’ll tell you that. It wasn’t always easy — it’s like living in a fishbowl,” Gretel says. “By the same token, with all of the downs, there are a lot of ups.”

The temple is replete with many memories and tributes to her late husband, such as the Rabbi Gunther G. Gates Social Hall and the annual Rabbi Gunther Gates Memorial Concert.

Additionally, there’s also a living tribute to Gretel on the temple property, donated by the Harbor Bay Isle Homeowners Association: an olive tree with a stone plaque dedicated to her service to the community.

Gretel Gates’ resume includes volunteering for many organizations. The PTA, March of Dimes, the Mayor’s Committee of the Homeless Shelter, ORT, Hadassah, the Red Cross, Campfire Girls and Girls Inc.! are only a few. In 2003, Alameda Mayor Beverly Johnson declared Jan. 31 as “Gretel Gates Day” in Alameda.

Bennett is a regular guest at Gretel’s house, sharing Shabbat dinner with her nearly every Friday night.

“She also took me under her wing as soon as I became the rabbi here,” Bennett says. “One Friday night, I walked into her house for Shabbat dinner, sat down at the table and she looked like she was pouting. I said, ‘What’s the matter?’ and she said, ‘I realized there are no continents left I haven’t visited, and so I’m sad.’

“I looked at her and said, ‘I’d be willing to bet that there are probably places on those continents that you haven’t been to.’ She said, ‘Of course,’ and I said, ‘Good, start packing.’ That’s who she is — she is ready to go see the world, experience things and participate in things — she’s always ready to go on a new adventure.”