Lee Marsh, Berkeley Jewish leader, co-founder of JCC

Lee Marsh, beloved husband, grandfather, father, friend and inspiring Berkeley Jewish community leader, passed away on March 7 at age 96.

As one of the first people to recognize the need for a new communal Jewish home in the East Bay, Marsh co-founded the JCC East Bay in 1978 along with Esther Redel and Ursula Sherman.

Lee Marsh

Their vision to create an educational and cultural center for the diverse community of unaffiliated Jewish families and individuals in the Berkeley-Richmond corridor began in a storefront on University Avenue. Just two years later, thanks to Marsh’s business acumen, determination and passion, the JCC found its permanent home at 1414 Walnut St. Today, the JCC East Bay offers programs and services for all ages in Berkeley and Oakland, including camp and teen programs absorbed from the Oakland-Piedmont and Contra Costa JCCs when they closed.

Born in Brooklyn to Russian immigrant parents in 1918, Marsh lived a life of hard work and unwavering devotion to his family and community. He inspired hope, integrity and goodwill wherever he went. On the day before he died, his hospice nurse called him “a ray of sunshine.”

Marsh married his wife, Dorothy, in 1946, and they moved to Detroit in 1948 where their two daughters, Julie and Robin, were born. Marsh learned the electrician trade and worked as an electrical contractor. In 1961, the family moved to Berkeley where Marsh founded Marsh Electric Co. and established himself as a true community leader.

A progressive Democrat all his life, Marsh fought tirelessly for what he believed in: to end discrimination in the trade unions (his company was always a union shop), greater opportunities for minority contractors in the construction industry, and a good public education for everyone, among other social justice causes. He served on Berkeley’s Waterfront Commission and Planning Commission, and Mayor Tom Bates remembers him with tremendous warmth and admiration: “He was such a wonderful man. We are just so lucky to have had him in our lives.”

For the Bay Area Jewish community, Marsh’s greatest legacy is the JCC East Bay.

In early planning meetings, “we met in living rooms, in parks, anywhere and everywhere,” Marsh recalled in a 1999 interview with J. “We were idealists, iconoclasts from the ’60s in Berkeley. We felt that people here could make a wonderful, spirited and creative JCC.”

Marsh served as the first president of the Berkeley-Richmond JCC (1980-1984) and continued as an active board member for many years. He established its Adult Education Center, initiated the Berkeley Jewish Theater and created a collegial and welcoming working environment for Jews and non-Jews. Marsh and the JCC staff felt great respect and affection for each other.

The JCC was always a second home to Marsh and his family, to which they contributed generously. Dorothy Marsh has been an innovative leader and founded the JCC’s popular “Sunday AM Food for Thought Program.” Two of their grandchildren, Rebecca and Roxanne, attended the JCC preschool and afterschool programs, and Roxanne celebrated her bat mitzvah at the JCC East Bay in 2010.

Nate Levine, principal at BuildingBlox Consulting and executive director of the BRJCC during Marsh’s presidency, said: “Lee was an extraordinary leader and mentor. He was visionary, hands-on and generous in all ways, including intellect, spirit and affection. The Bay Area Jewish community has lost somebody very special.”

Marsh’s commitment to inclusivity and social justice, his vision and his generosity for the growth of a vibrant Jewish community have inspired many Jewish community leaders, and he leaves a legacy of leadership, stewardship and community.

Marsh is survived by Dorothy, his wife of 68 years, daughters Julie and Robin, granddaughters Rebecca, Lily, Michelle and Roxanne, and his sister Laurel in New York.

A celebration of Marsh’s life will be held at the JCC East Bay, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday, April 12. In lieu of flowers, donations in his memory may be made to the JCC East Bay or to an organization that supports social justice and equality.


Nicki Gilbert

Nicki Gilbert is a writer, Alcatraz swimmer and country music lover who lives in Piedmont with her husband, four kids and dachshund puppy. Her blog is RedBoots.me.