Dr. Ed Tamler, physician and activist for Soviet Jewry

He was an ophthalmologist who did groundbreaking research on the eye, and a Jewish activist who worked tirelessly on behalf of refuseniks in the former Soviet Union. He was a progressive and a conservative, an intellectual and an author. He loved Torah, the Jewish people and his family.

Ed Tamler

Last week, Dr. Edward Tamler died at his home in San Mateo, just four days after his newest great-granddaughter entered the world. He was 96.

Educated at City College of New York and then Columbia University, Tamler served as a naval officer in World War II. In 1951 he moved to San Francisco, where he practiced and taught ophthalmology. He published many papers with his research partner and close friend Dr. Arthur Jampolsky, who delivered one of three eulogies at the Aug. 30 funeral.

“He was very humble about his professional accomplishments,” said daughter-in-law Nechama Tamler, a Bay Area Jewish educator who is married to Ed’s son Howard. “When he retired 30 years ago, his professional association gave a luncheon in his honor. That was the first time I had any idea of the scope of his research. He influenced hundreds of people in his field.”

Tamler retired at 65 because, as he put it, he “had a lot of other things he wanted to do,” Nechama said. That included writing a book on land value taxation (“He had a deep sense of social justice — he believed that people who owned land were very lucky, and should give back to society”) and spending even more time studying Torah, an interest he developed later in life. The son of immigrant parents who abandoned Judaism when they arrived in New York, Tamler was reintroduced to his heritage in 1960 by the late Rabbi Harold Schulweiss, then the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland.

“That started his passion for Torah and learning,” Nechama said. “He was in multiple study groups, some of which he led. He had intellectual curiosity his whole life, and was always interested in learning.”

Ed and Rose, his wife of 74 years, were regulars the past three years at Rabbi Corey Helfand’s Torah class at Peninsula Sinai Congregation.

“What was profound about Ed was not only the depth of his knowledge, but the passion that he brought to his study and, of course, to his opinions,” Helfand said in his eulogy. “Ed would sit and listen, take it all in, as he lifted his magnifying glass to look more closely at the sources in front of him. And then, a couple of times each class, Ed would ask an insightful question or offer a brilliant reflection, making it clear just how extensive his knowledge and wisdom was.”

A longtime subscriber to I.F. Stone’s Weekly, a progressive, independent newsletter, Tamler moved during the Reagan years to a conservative stance. He was a regular letter-writer to J., and would often argue politics with his grandchildren, never raising his voice but making his points with calm firmness.

“I didn’t agree with his politics, but I loved the way he valued his family, service to others and was always finding ways to be intellectually curious,” his granddaughter Tamar Tamler Henry posted on Facebook this week. “Saba, your memory is a blessing. I love you.”

One of his great passions, which he shared with Rose, was working on behalf of the refuseniks, Jews forbidden from leaving the Soviet Union. In 1967 he was one of the co-founders of the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jewry, a grassroots organization that advocated for Soviet Jews until the gates opened to emigration more than 30 years later.

David Waksberg, now executive director of Jewish LearningWorks, was the exec at the Bay Area Council from 1981 to 1994, while Tamler was still active as a volunteer and board member. “There are hundreds of thousands of [Soviet Jews] who owe a debt to him, and they’ll never know his name,” Waksberg told J. this week. “He never wanted the limelight.”

Tamler joined Hal Light, Sidney Luger and Rabbi Morris Hershman in forming the Bay Area Council after hearing a talk about the plight of Soviet Jews at Congregation Sherith Israel in the mid-’60s. They did so despite strong opposition from local Jewish leaders, including the San Francisco Jewish federation, Waksberg recalls. Over the years, the organization became a recognized leader in the field.

“They were told, ‘Don’t do anything, this is beyond your expertise, the Israeli government is handling things, it’s best to keep quiet,’” Waksberg relates. “But they didn’t accept that. Part of it was the experience of the Holocaust just 20 years earlier. Keeping quiet didn’t make sense to them any longer.

“They were mavericks. They stood up to everyone.”

By the time Waksberg arrived at the Bay Area Council, Tamler was the only one of the original four activists left. He and Rose spearheaded many efforts, notably a six-day-a-week vigil that Rose organized outside the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco. It lasted seven years.

Political analyst and Israel activist John Rothmann worked with Tamler for years in the council and traveled to Israel with Ed and Rose in 1979 on a trip organized by the Zionist Organization of America.

“He cared very deeply about Israel,” Rothmann said. “Watching him enjoy the historic sites was marvelous.” Even more inspiring, Rothmann added, were the “absolutely incredible” meetings the Tamlers had in Israel with former Soviet Jews the couple had helped bring to freedom.

Tamler also taught Torah, lectured on Jewish values, was a co-founder of Brandeis-Hillel Day School and served on the boards of the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Relations Council and the American Jewish Congress. His passions were many, none greater than the love of his life, Rose. The couple celebrated their wedding anniversary last month, posting a photo and announcement in J.

“Ed was a remarkable man,” said Morey Schapira, past president of the Bay Area Council and past national president of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry. “He had a warm smile and was a modest person. But underneath that mild demeanor was a Jewish hero. He was selfless in devoting his considerable talent, time and energy to save his fellow Jews.

“Ed was always there, always participating and adding his valuable opinions. His wife Rose, his bride of 74 years, was always with him, and the two of them were always a welcome sight. We couldn’t have achieved the success that we did here in the Bay Area without him.”

Ed Tamler was buried Aug. 30 at Skylawn in San Mateo after a funeral service at Peninsula Temple Sholom. He is survived by wife Rose, two sons, seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].