Ethel Goldbaum, Peninsula synagogue pioneer, dies at 106

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Over her long life, Ethel Balsam Goldbaum begat two children, 16 grandchildren, 75 great-grandchildren and four great-great-grandchildren. And she knew by heart the names and birthdays of every one of them.

That’s how sharp and devoted Goldbaum was when it came to family. When she died on July 17 in her San Mateo home at the age of 106, she left behind a legacy of love for her descendants and the Jewish community.

A lifetime member of Hadassah and a founding member of Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo, the former schoolteacher served for many years as membership coordinator for the synagogue’s Senior Friendship Club, welcoming congregants as they crossed into their 50s.

Ethel Goldbaum

She made many friends along the way.

“She was one of the most forgiving people on the planet,” said her granddaughter, Tamar Bittelman, now living in Israel. “She always said the most important thing was to forgive and move forward.”

Born in 1907 when Theodore Roosevelt sat in the White House, Ethel Balsam grew up in Brooklyn, the daughter of immigrants. She attended a teachers college and became a New York City schoolteacher. A young adventurer, she traveled to Europe by steamer in the 1920s.

In 1930, she married William Goldbaum, with whom she had two children, Sandra and Frederic. In 1943, the Goldbaum family relocated to California, eventually settling in the then-sleepy town of San Mateo. The two were married for more than 60 years.

While her lawyer husband launched a legal practice, Goldbaum reared the kids as a stay-at-home mother. ”She was a very caring mom,” recalled daughter Sandy Reinin of San Mateo. “She would sew clothes for me, even through high school. She was loving, but firm.”

Along with other unaffiliated Jews on the North Peninsula, the Goldbaums co-founded a new synagogue in the early 1950s, one that would eventually become Peninsula Temple Beth El.

Ethel Goldbaum became very active, especially in later years when she helped found and lead the 50+ Club (later called the Senior Friendship Club), a task she did from 1978 until 2002, when she was a few years shy of the century mark.

“She was very active in that part of temple life,” said Beth El Rabbi Dennis Eisner, who met Goldbaum when his tenure began six years ago. “The Goldbaums came with a sense of obligation not only to the Jewish community but to Israel, and to creating an environment in which to raise their children, who are still very connected to Jewish life.”

Indeed, her daughter remains a lifelong member of Beth El, while her son, Frederic (now Ephraim), became an Orthodox rabbi and moved to Israel, where he had a large family. Goldbaum’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren numbered in the many dozens.

“She had a phenomenal memory,” Bittelman said. “Not only did she remember each grandchild’s name, but also every single anniversary and all descendants’ birthdays. At [the Senior Friendship Club] she saw it as her duty to remember each birthday. That was until she was 104.”

Well into widowhood and old age, Goldbaum would entertain the family by playing piano or dancing a spontaneous Charleston.

While she lived in a board-and-care facility in her last years, Goldbaum’s mind remained active and her heart full. She even penned some final advice to her family, which read in part: “Do what you must — do your utmost — then, proceed to move forward, bravely and with humor; no time to grieve.”

Ethel Balsam Goldbaum is survived by her children, Sandy Reinin of San Mateo and Ephraim Goldbaum of Telz-Stone, Israel; 16 grandchildren; 75 great-grandchildren; and four great-great-grandchildren.

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.