Beth Abrams strikes a ballet pose in a truck of donated food.
Beth Abrams strikes a ballet pose in a truck of donated food.

Beth Abrams’ Jewish identity spurred her fight for the oppressed

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Passover at Beth Abrams’ Bernal Heights home was always an event, said her son, Dario Abramskiehn.

“We eat great food and we laugh and we cry and we talk about not just the pretend plagues that are traditional, but other plagues…. racism and homophobia and sexism, and destruction of the natural world,” Abramskiehn said. “Her definition of suffering in the world was pretty thoughtful and expansive.”

Abrams, 73, died on Jan. 14 during a walk in Golden Gate Park, where she was found next to a fallen tree branch. She was a dancer, activist and treasured member of her community.

Abrams was a member of Keneset HaLev, a nondenominational congregation, and Or Shalom Jewish Community, a Reconstructionist synagogue, both in San Francisco.

She didn’t do anything in half measures.

The San Francisco Medical Examiner’s office has not yet confirmed an official cause of death. A series of atmospheric river storms, which wreaked havoc in California, contributed to at least 20 deaths as of Jan. 17, according to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office.

Abrams was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1949 to parents who considered themselves more culturally than religiously Jewish. The family moved to L.A. when Abrams was 4, and then to Orange County to follow her father’s work in the Air Force. In Orange County, the family faced acts of antisemitism, Abramskiehn said, which cemented his mom’s Jewish identity and her future as an activist.

“The idea of a really long and painful Jewish legacy of oppression and discrimination informed her advocacy for other oppressed peoples and vulnerable people, not limited to Jews, as a way of engaging with the larger world,” said Abramskiehn.

Abrams moved to the Bay Area in the early 1970s, following her brother and her anti-war activism. For the next 40 years, she taught dance classes at all levels, from experienced dancers to children, pregnant people and those with disabilities. A friend from Keneset HaLev, Debbie Esters, took her floor barre class at San Francisco’s Lines Dance Center, which Abrams taught into her final week.

“I used to say she put Humpty-Dumpty together again,” Esters said. “As a teacher, she was entertaining and funny, incredibly experienced and knowledgeable.”

Beth Abrams and her son, Dario Abramskiehn
Beth Abrams and her son, Dario Abramskiehn

Equal to her passion for dance was Abrams’ devotion to social justice. At her 36th birthday party, she met a friend from El Salvador who had recently fled violence in the region. New to San Francisco, the friend had no money, family or resources — so Abrams sprang into action. She founded the organization Grupo de la Comida to feed the city’s growing immigrant population with food donated by local markets and bakeries. At its height, Grupo fed more than 2,000 people each week, Abramskiehn said, and offered clothing, nutritional education and other resources. To handle the logistics of the program, Abrams founded the Beth Abrams Center for Peace, Arts, Justice and the Environment. The center took on additional projects, tackling wastewater issues in the city and advocating for improved infrastructure for charging electric cars. Grupo ended in 2012, but Abrams’ work did not.

“She had passion,” Esters said. “She didn’t do anything in half measures.”

Abrams was the steward of her family’s Jewish traditions, her son said. While always expanding her understanding of her faith and theology, she was anchored in the concepts of tzedakah and tikkun olam. Keneset HaLev president Shari Samuels said she was known for her Purim costumes, gluten-free Shabbat dishes and phone calls made during her long walks in Golden Gate Park.

Abramskiehn also remembers the Christmas parties his mother threw for members of the Grupo community. She would persuade her friends to donate money, gifts, musical performances and every year a giant tree. She also would take great effort in matching gifts to children and fulfilling individual requests when she could. Some of Abramskiehn’s happiest childhood memories are of working alongside his mother, he said.

“All of these things she did she did with just kind of overflowing love for other people,” Abramskiehn said.

Lillian Ilsley-Greene
Lillian Ilsley-Greene

Lillian Ilsley-Greene was a staff writer at J. from 2022-2023.