As a young boxer in Bayonne, N.J., Ernest Weiner was a featherweight, perhaps a welterweight on a good day. But during his epic 38-year career as the S.F.-based regional director of the American Jewish Committee, he was a champion heavyweight.
One of the most erudite, skillful and pugnacious of Bay Area Jewish community leaders, Weiner passed away Jan. 10 from complications following surgery. He was 89.
“Ernie was a giant,” said AJC executive director David Harris. “I know hyperbole has become an art form in America, but he really deserves the term. He was one of a kind. Anyone who knew Ernie found this exquisite combination of wisdom, experience, toughness, compassion and his trademark wit.”
Mervyn Danker, who succeeded Weiner as the AJC regional director in San Francisco, added, “He was smallish in stature but a giant in so many respects, a larger-than-life figure. Because of his public persona, as someone well liked and respected, he placed AJC in the alphabet of Jewish organizations quite prominently.”
When he retired in 2008, Weiner reflected on his life and career, telling J., “I feel like I’ve made some timid journey across the history of the Jewish people, and I have done it as a proud American.”
Timid was hardly his style.
Weiner grew up in Bayonne, the son of Latvian immigrants. During the Depression, young Ernie worked as a shoeshine boy on the Staten Island Ferry. Later he took up boxing, becoming a teen Golden Gloves champion and earning the nickname “The Bayonne Bomber” (“I had what they call fast hands,” Weiner told J. in 2008).
He put that combative spirit to use in World War II, fighting in France. He continued to box while serving in Gen. George Patton’s Third Army but was badly wounded in hand-to-hand combat with German soldiers. Weiner spent several months in a French hospital, learning the language while recovering.
Lying in that hospital bed in Aix-en-Provence, Weiner met doctors and fellow soldiers returning from the East, where they had liberated the concentration camps. Their tales of the countless Jewish dead filled Weiner with a lifelong resolve: Never again.
Weiner also served in Japan during the postwar occupation, filing stories for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. Back home, he used the GI Bill to attend the University of Missouri, where he met the love of his life, Shirley. The couple married in 1949, and when Shirley received an offer to conduct nutrition research at U.C. Berkeley, they moved to California in 1952.
With undergraduate and graduate degrees in journalism and English, respectively, Weiner found work at a local publishing company. He spent several years in that industry, then in 1967 got a job as public relations director for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.
He found his life’s work in 1971 when he was hired by AJC, a venerable institution dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism, supporting Israel and making inroads with other ethnic and religious communities.
It was a job tailor-made for Weiner.
Steven Swig, whose father and grandfather were venerated San Francisco Jewish community leaders and AJC board members, also joined the board in the late 1960s. He remembers Weiner being “a marvelous and welcome addition to AJC. He gave a vitality and life to the place it had not had in the S.F. chapter before.”
Swig appreciated Weiner’s dual approach to problem-solving. “He personified that New Jersey style of rough-and-tumble boxer, yet a sensitive Jewish poet. He was all those things: a gruff, smart, sensitive person who would cry at the drop of a hat, yet he had a keen sense of the intellectual life of the world.”
A key aspect of his job involved establishing ties with S.F.-based foreign consulates — 75 in all — and ethnic groups to push a pro-Israel, pro-Jewish message. Weiner, the elegant polyglot, handled the task with aplomb.
One early contact, John Tateishi of the Japanese American Citizens League, became an admirer and a lifelong friend.
“In 1978 Ernie suggested we consider the idea of legislation to establish a blue-ribbon commission to examine what led to the decision to exclude and imprison Japanese Americans during WWII,” Tateishi wrote in a tribute to Weiner upon his retirement. “Ernie told me he would get the AJC’s endorsement of the campaign. And thus, [AJC] became the first and most important organization to endorse the JACL’s Redress campaign.”
When Chinese American parents filed a lawsuit in 1994 challenging admissions policies at Lowell High School in San Francisco — Chinese American students were required to score higher on the admissions test than any other ethnic group — Weiner recruited attorneys from his board of directors to represent the parents.
In 2007, the consul general of France in San Francisco presented him with the Knight of the French National Order of Merit, expressing “gratitude for his outstanding service in the American Army in the European theater during World War II, and in recognition of his accomplishments as the head of AJC, where he endlessly promoted French-American friendship and cooperation.”
Diplomatic, yes, but Weiner was nothing if not feisty. He stridently argued the case for Israel, fearing no opponent. He also was a staunch conservative when it came to domestic politics, and he never shied away from backing conservative causes.
One of Weiner’s best friends was philanthropist Tad Taube, who brought his friend onto the board of the Koret Israel Economic Development Funds. Taube told J. that Weiner was “a great fighter for the survival of the Jewish people, both cultural and physical.”
“My involvement in AJC could be almost exclusively credited to Ernie,” Taube added. “We talked on the phone almost every day. He was like a brother to me. We had a level of intimacy that I can’t really seriously say I have with anybody outside my family.”
Through it all, Weiner’s refuge was his family: wife Shirley and their four children, living in the Summit Road house the couple built in Berkeley more than 60 years ago.
“They were never apart for 61 years,” recalled son Dan Weiner. “He wrote a poem for her every year. He worshipped her. She was the rock, making sure all four kids were in working order.”
Meanwhile, Weiner labored tirelessly for AJC, Israel and the Jewish people. Dan Weiner believes one of his father’s defining moments came on a trip to Israel more than 40 years ago where he had a one-on-one meeting with Golda Meir.
“He was changed when he came back from that,” Dan said. “That really taught him about being firm, being driven, and also conveying your message in such a way that people rallied around you. For the next 30 to 40 years, he realized that was what he needed to do.”
Added Harris, “He took no prisoners. You could disagree about Israeli policy, but if you wanted to challenge Israel’s right to exist or its credentials as a democracy you had to contend with Ernie Weiner. He was going to stand as tough as any lineman on the 49ers.”
Weiner took on other projects. He was a founding member of the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame of Northern California. He served on the California State Athletic Commission overseeing his beloved sport of boxing.
And he took special pride in his Ernest Weiner Fund, which provides scholarships for high school seniors and programming in support of Israel.
He retired in 2008, taking time to enjoy his children, nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Weiner also stayed involved in AJC and Jewish affairs. Danker said he talked with Weiner frequently, gaining from his predecessor valuable insights into the job.
“I got a sense of the protocol,” Danker noted. “After 38 years at AJC, the word that comes to mind about lasting that long, you call a person indestructible. That was Ernie.”
Alas, he was not. With the death of his beloved Shirley in 2010, Weiner suffered a body blow the old boxer could not easily overcome.
“He changed after his wife passed away,” said one of Weiner’s best friends, B’nai B’rith International vice president Milton Jacobs. “I don’t think he overcame that. He talked about that with me a lot. He asked me how do you cope with it. I said you just live your life.”
The two talked often, indulging in their mutual passion for “Seinfeld” trivia. Weiner tried to take his friend’s advice, and kept living his life.
It came to an end last week, but his legacy of devotion to the Jewish people lives on.
“There were so many threads to his life,” said Harris. “Few in America today embody all those extraordinary life-shaping experiences that created the Ernie Weiner we knew and whom I loved.”
Weiner’s funeral was held Jan. 13 at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette. He is survived by his children, Lisa Reich of Lawrence, N.Y., Dan Weiner of Lafayette, Steven Wilde of Studio City, Calif., and Rebecca Weiner of Oakland; nine grandchildren and eight grandchildren.