Edith Hylton, ex-temple president, dies at 90

If such a thing were possible, Edith Hylton would have sent thank-you notes to everyone who attended her funeral June 27.

Hylton, who died June 24 in San Mateo at age 90, was just that way, friends and relatives said. She was a woman who never accepted a lunch invitation without following up with a handwritten thank-you note, who crocheted ornaments for her Christian friends every December, and who, when her three grandchildren were born, crafted them tallits, meticulously needlepointing the brachah that would someday wrap around their 13-year-old shoulders.

“She made no secret that she was hedging her bets, that in case she was not around at their bar mitzvahs, she’d be present,” said her oldest son, Leon Hylton of San Francisco. Luckily, she lived to see Leon’s son and daughter on the bimah.

When Hylton succumbed to cancer last month, she had barely suffered even so much as a cold in all her decades, her son said.

Hylton was born in Bocholt, Germany in 1917. Her father owned a wool factory and provided a comfortable living for the family.

She developed an inner strength at a young age. Her father refused to give in to the Nazi demand for Jews to cede their stock ownership. One Sunday morning he went for a walk and never returned. He was found hanged with what was believed to be a fake suicide note in his pocket.

In 1939, Hylton, her two younger sisters and their mother secured fake Russian passports and immigrated to England. Shortly thereafter, Hylton went to New York City.

“She was an independent person and that would have been her style to go off on her own,” Leon said.

She found work as a secretary, and after a few years, moved to Los Angeles, where she met her first husband, Sam Fields. Just months after they had their first child, Sam Fields died.

Hylton suddenly became a single mother with a newborn baby. It was 1952. She decided to move to England, where she could be closer to her sisters and mother. Four years later, she met her second husband, Kurt Hylton.

She missed the warmth and ease of California, so the family moved to San Francisco in 1957. They immediately joined Congregation Beth Israel, then located on Geary Street. They had two more sons.

“Judaism was not something we did, it was something we lived,” Leon said.

Hylton was an observant Jew who rarely missed a Shabbat in temple. Friday night dinner with blessings over the candles, wine and challah was “an unfailing practice,” he added. “But she wasn’t stuck in the mud about tradition. She saw Judaism as being a little fluid, I guess, that it had to open its doors and practices to all.”

She was widowed a second time in 1971. Leon had already graduated from college and entered the Navy, but she still had two younger sons at home, so she went back to work as a secretary to support her family.

She also took over her husband’s position on the synagogue’s board of directors, and in 1976, became Congregation Beth Israel-Judea’s first female president.

“I believe she might have been the first woman president of a synagogue in the West, maybe even in the country,” Leon said.

The synagogue filled her life with purpose and her calendar with congregational activities, meetings and services.

“At Beth Israel-Judea, the practice is that kippot are optional except on the bima,” Leon said. “So if somebody started heading up to the bima without a kippah, my mom was not afraid to tackle them, she’d be right there. She kept a bunch of kippot in her purse, and she’d hand them one.”

At the funeral, Rabbi Rosalind Glazer of Beth Israel-Judea called Hylton “a woman of valor.”

Friends and relatives described her as someone with dignity who expressed empathy, compassion and warmth to all she encountered. She believed in giving people second chances and in treating people of all faiths and backgrounds fairly.

“She was very sweet and very kind,” said John Zucchero, a longtime family friend. “She was always thinking of other people, sometimes more than she thought of herself.”

Hylton is survived by her three sons and their families: Leon, Michele, Sammy and Nita Hylton of San Francisco; Alan, Debbie and Ariel Hylton of Ringoes, N.J.; and Michael Hylton and Winola Fong of Oakland.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.