Legacy of Magnes founder will live on

Thursday, October 29, 2009 | by

With the death this week of Seymour Fromer, the Bay Area has lost a true visionary of art and culture.

Fromer died at the age of 87 following a long illness. But he will long be remembered for the impact he had on the Bay Area Jewish and arts communities.

Most notably, Fromer founded Berkeley’s Judah L. Magnes Museum back in the early 1960s. Initially a repository for his vast Judaica collection, the Magnes came to embody Fromer’s vision of a center for learning, research, art and exhibition.

Under his stewardship, the Magnes grew to become one of the premiere Jewish museums in the country.

He didn’t stop there. Fromer was a one-man incubator of good ideas. Though extremely modest, he was central in the development of Berkeley’s adult education center Lehrhaus Judaica, as well as the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, Jewish Music Festival, the National Yiddish Book Center and other cultural endeavors.

Decades ago, Fromer had the idea to start the Jewish Education Council. Today it is called the Center for Jewish Life and Learning — the Jewish education arm of the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay. It is the leading Jewish education agency in the East Bay. Fromer served as its director for a quarter-century.

Though he officially retired more than 10 years ago, Fromer stayed active to the end. He and his wife, Rebecca, scoured the hidden corners of the world in search of rare Judaica (most of it now housed at the Magnes), and he continually worked on new exhibitions, acquisitions and learning opportunities.

In Judaism, we revere the concept of dor va’dor, of passing down our Jewish heritage from generation to generation. Seymour Fromer well understood this concept, mentoring scores of young artists, arts advocates, historians and researchers. Those individuals, and others who never had the chance to learn under his tutelage, will sorely miss him.

Inherent in this notion of dor va’dor is the fact that older generations make way for younger generations. That is, of course, the natural order of things.

But it remains incumbent upon us always honor the irreplaceable contributions of those who are no longer with us.

In the case of Seymour Fromer, we need not worry about forgetting. His enormous impact on arts and the Jewish community can never pass away. We will have daily reminders of his great work for many years to come.

May his memory be for a blessing.