Toby Stein, S.F. Hadassah chapter president, dies

Toby Stein loved Shabbat. So much so, that her Friday night dinners often served as a kind of Jewish salon for Israeli army officers, diplomats and other dignitaries visiting San Francisco. Sometimes, Stein’s Shabbats provided a cozy way station for strangers passing through town.

“She loved to have people come over and share the table,” remembers her daughter, Judith Stein. “It was fun. It was a political and social education.”

As friends and family members would attest, Toby Stein personified Jewish activism throughout her life. She died of congestive heart failure on Dec. 15 in San Francisco. She was 92.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1916, Toby Kellner was the daughter of Polish immigrants. Raised Orthodox, she and her siblings received a thorough Jewish and secular education. She graduated from City College of New York with an accounting degree, which she put to use working for her father, a clothing manufacturer.

It was during her tenure as president of Young Judaea that she met a young man named Louis Stein. “My dad was a handsome guy, a catch,” said son David Stein. “There were a lot of girls giving him the eye. But his mom kept saying, ‘What about Toby?’ ‘

The couple married in 1943. Both were passionate about the state of Israel, and Lou Stein eventually went to work for the Zionist Organization of America. That brought the young family out West, first to Los Angeles and later to San Francisco, where they promptly joined Congregation Beth Sholom.

Lou eventually served as director of Northern California operations for Israel Bonds, a post he held for nearly 30 years.

Toby volunteered with the temple sisterhood and served as San Francisco chapter president of Hadassah, an organization whose cause greatly appealed to her. “Ever since she was a young girl, social service was paramount to her,” said Judith Stein. “This organization really helped people.”

Along with her husband, Toby Stein led many tours of Israel on behalf of Israel Bonds. Her fluency in Hebrew helped make her an in-demand guide for these tours.

At Beth Sholom she was also a leader, becoming the first woman at the Conservative congregation to have an aliyah on Yom Kippur. And her daughter, Judith, was the first girl at the congregation to have a bat mitzvah.

Beyond that, “my parents were very involved with progressive politics,” said Judith Stein. “In 1964, during the summer of voter registration, they held a seder for [the civil rights organization] SNCC. They charged people $12.50 to come.”

Stein kept a kosher home and was a gourmet cook. Her children remember her experimenting with all kinds of world cuisines — Chinese, French, Japanese — all of them prepared kosher.

Well after her husband’s death in 1988, Stein continued to lead an active life, traveling frequently and becoming a regular at Beth Sholom’s egalitarian morning minyan, often leading the services herself.

“She was besotted with her grandchildren,” added David Stein of his mother’s close relationship with his two children. “She set up a book-of-the-month club when they were tiny babies, and as they got older they picked out their own [books]. Every month they had to write a book report. Their thank-you notes turned into book reports.”

Eventually, time and age caught up with Stein. She moved to Rhoda Goldman Plaza and later to the Jewish Home.

“Everything she did, she tried to do the best,” remembered David. “She was a perfectionist. That was a message we got. If you’re going to do something, don’t do it halfway.”

Toby Kellner Stein is survived by her children, Judith Stein of San Francisco and David Stein of Plano, Texas; her brother Harold Kellner of White Plains, N.Y., and two grandchildren. Donations can be made to Hadassah, 1715 Polk St., S.F., CA 94109.

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.