Ilene Weinreb is a quintessential bubbe: She dotes on her four grandchildren, bakes incredible cookies and spent numerous Friday afternoons volunteering in the Berkeley Hillel kitchen so college students could enjoy a Shabbat meal together.
But her impact on the community stretches far beyond the kitchen.
“She’s an amazing example of a volunteer working in the Jewish world,” said Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman, executive director of Berkeley Hillel, who has known Weinreb for five years. As a leader and a contributor, both in terms of time and money, she “personifies a visionary,” he added.
Weinreb, 84, blazed a political path, first as a member of the Hayward City Council from 1968 to 1974 and then when she was elected the city’s first female mayor. After serving two consecutive terms from 1974 to 1982, she continued her commitment to the community. As an advocate for affording housing in the Bay Area for the last three decades, Weinreb has been instrumental in recognizing a need and taking action.
“I’ve always been interested in public affairs,” she said last week after returning home from the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, where she is the only civilian to sit on the county’s Criminal Justice Oversight Committee.
From 2004 until last year, Weinreb was a trustee on the board of the Alameda County Medical Center, a nine-year term that included a short stint as president. She continues to be an active board member at Eden Housing (an East Bay–based nonprofit housing development organization), Berkeley Hillel and the Jewish Community Foundation of the East Bay.
The Missouri native is responsible for establishing various philanthropic groups, including Maximizing Opportunities for Mothers (MOMs), a program that helps incarcerated and previously incarcerated women to reintegrate. She currently chairs the organization.
She is also responsible for starting the Shabbat dinner program at Berkeley Hillel, which has fed hundreds of students over the past 15 years.
Naftalin-Kelman said when he met Weinreb, “It was unbelievable to meet somebody who fully embodied what the organization [Hillel] meant.” After seeing Weinreb’s example, he added, students started taking their own initiative with the Shabbat meals.
Weinreb described being raised in a home that was “not terribly religious, but definitely Jewish.” She said her interest in Hillel stems from her time at the University of Chicago in the early 1950s. While earning a master’s degree in history, she and her future husband, the late Dr. Marvin Weinreb, attended many Hillel events together. The two moved to California in 1953.
A staunch believer in Hillel, she says she realized that local Jewish students in Berkeley did not have a place for dinner after Shabbat services and decided to do something about it.
“I feel that Shabbat dinners are a great way for Jewish students to get together easily and one of the last opportunities for young Jews to meet before they start working,” she said. “So I started cooking meals.”
And cooking for upwards of 200 students is no easy feat, especially for someone in her late 60s or early 70s.
Needing enough prep time, Weinreb would begin the cooking early Friday afternoon. The menu would often include chicken, vegetables, dessert and challah from the Grand Bakery in Oakland.
Weinreb said she was able to convince her friends to make the weekly shlep to Hillel and help cook the meals with her.
“When I wore all of them out, the kids still wanted the Shabbat dinners to continue,” she recalled. “I told them if they would do the cooking, I would pay for the ingredients.” Parents also pitched in, she noted, proudly adding that the Friday night dinners are still going on today.
In addition to creating the Shabbat meal program, Weinreb gave $1 million toward Hillel’s endowment, as well as $250,000 for the continuation of the Shabbat meal program. She also is a longtime supporter of the Jewish Music Festival.
Weinreb’s philanthropy and volunteer spirit were matched by her late husband, a longtime East Bay dermatologist and a one-time president of the Jewish Federation of the East Bay. Marvin Weinreb died in a plane crash in 2000 while volunteering with Los Medicos Voladores (Flying Doctors) in Mexico; five other people, including three members of the Bay Area Jewish community, also perished in the crash.
Riva Gambert, senior director of community programs at the East Bay federation, has known Ilene Weinreb for more than two decades. She praised her for “her commitment to the next generation” and for an “unwavering” commitment to the Jewish community overall.
To that end, Weinreb was presented with the Endowment Achievement Award by the federation at its annual meeting last year. A year earlier, she was honored by the JCC of the East Bay.
Now residing in Oakland, Weinreb continues to be extremely active: between juggling her various board positions, three daughters, four grandchildren and insatiable appetite for reading, she is always busy.
“She serves as a role model,” Gambert says, “someone who always feels they have something else to learn.”