Seymour Fromer, Magnes Museum founder, remembered

Thursday, October 29, 2009 | by dan pine

Seymour Fromer, the courtly catalyst for two major Bay Area Jewish institutions, died Oct. 25 in his Berkeley home after a long illness. He was 87.

As founder and director of Berkeley’s Judah L. Magnes Museum and spearhead of Lehrhaus Judaica, also headquartered in Berkeley, Fromer played a central role in promoting Jewish arts, culture and history. The Jewish educator never stopped working with younger generations and incubating their ideas.

Under Fromer’s direction, the Magnes grew to become one of the largest Jewish museums in North America. Fromer retired from the Magnes in 1997, and remained emeritus director.

Fromer, Seymour
Seymour Fromer
“Seymour was a visionary, able to glimpse the possibilities of an institution that brought together not only the arts, culture and history of the Jewish people, but also contemporary artists, scholars and thinkers to talk about the future of Jewish life,” said Magnes President Frances Dinkelspiel, “

“What made him unique in Northern California Jewish life the last half-century was the way he nurtured young people,” said Fred Rosenbaum, who co-founded Lehrhaus Judaica under Fromer’s guidance. “It was so exciting to walk into the Magnes. [Fromer] made it a hub of artistic creativity and intellectual inquiry.”

Born and raised in the Bronx, N.Y., Fromer earned a degree from Brooklyn College and did graduate work at Teachers College Columbia University. He worked in the field of Jewish education in Essex County, N.J., and Los Angeles.

It was in L.A. that Fromer met his wife of more than 50 years, Rebecca Camhi, a poet, teacher and author.

In 1953, the couple moved to Oakland, where Fromer established the Jewish Education Council (forerunner of today’s Center for Jewish Life and Learning). He served as its director for 25 years.

In 1962, the Fromers founded the Magnes Museum, named for an internationally prominent Jewish leader who was raised in Oakland in the 1880s, in a $75-a-month loft over Oakland’s Parkway Theater. At one point, the couple fell behind in the rent. When their landlord stopped by to collect it, he was so taken by them, he let the Fromers stay on for free.

A few years later, in 1967, the museum moved to its current quarters, the elegant Burke mansion at 2911 Russell St.

“In those days, he was surrounded by people short on funds but long on dreams,” remembered Rosenbaum. “[Fromer] was not only hopeful but helpful. He would jumpstart the careers of many deserving folks.”

Initially, the Magnes specialized in ceremonial art, posters and paintings of Jewish themes. The Fromers expanded the collection by personally rescuing artifacts from endangered Jewish communities in places such as Czechoslovakia, Morocco, Egypt and India.

Together with college students and other museum supporters, they traveled to those shrinking Jewish communities, rescuing centuries-old Jewish textiles, arks, illuminated ketubahs, manuscripts, Sabbath lamps and other items.

One time, in North Africa on a Judaica hunt, Rebecca found herself walking ahead of her husband. Suddenly the Muslim women on one side of the street and men on the other began hissing and shouting at them. The couple had broken a strict cultural taboo, and might have been threatened.

But the Fromers were too dedicated to their task to be afraid.

“It’s sort of a response to the Holocaust,” Fromer told the Jewish Bulletin in 2003. “So much was destroyed during World War II. Anything that could be saved was precious.

“Whenever we had a vacation, we would go someplace where there were Jewish historical items to be saved, and other people did the same,” Fromer added. “If we didn’t rescue these things, they might be lost forever.”

The couple was motivated by a desire to preserve precious objects from vanishing Jewish communities, and to make them accessible as educational tools for schoolchildren, scholars and other members of the public.

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Seymour Fromer attends a 25th anniversary event for the Judah L. Magnes Museum, 1987.
The Fromers also saved treasures closer to home — such as the papers and photos of Koppel Pinson, a Queens College professor who was sent to Europe after World War II by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to locate Jewish cultural items looted by the Nazis.

Pinson’s widow had moved to Modesto, where she died in the early 1990s. One day Fromer got a call from someone connected to Pinson’s estate who told him, “There’s all this material. We’re going to throw it away.”

Realizing the significance of what was headed for the trash, Fromer quickly drove out to the Central Valley with a colleague to retrieve the papers.

All told, the Fromers collected some 11,000 pieces of Judaica and fine arts, 10,000 rare and other Jewish-themed books, along with papers, photos and other documents. Much of that material was housed in the Magnes’ Western Jewish History Center, which Fromer helped establish in 1967.

A repository of documents, photos and other artifacts from the 13 western states, the WJHC was the first regional Jewish history center of its kind in the country.

Fromer never shied away from bold artistic statements. In 1996, he oversaw the affixing of a mezuzah on a temporary doorpost of the Magnes. The mezuzah was filled with the HIV-infected blood of the artist.

“We want it to be taken seriously as an expression of pain and concern,” Fromer said of the exhibit at the time.

In 1997, as he prepared to retire as the Magnes director, Fromer was named Executive of the Year by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

Fromer also created the Commission for the Preservation of Pioneer Jewish Cemeteries and Landmarks in 1995, which restored and to this day maintains seven Jewish Gold Rush cemeteries in the California Mother Lode.

In addition, he provided moral, financial and strategic support for such fledgling organizations as the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and the National Yiddish Book Center.

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Seymour Fromer stands at the foot of the museum’s driveway in Berkeley.
Lehrhaus Judaica’s Rosenbaum came up with the idea for an adult Jewish learning center modeled after the Franz Rosenzweig’s Lehrhaus in prewar Germany.

“[Fromer], along with the Hillel director Rabbi Steven Robbins, provided me with the impetus and resources I needed,” said Rosenbaum. “I was only 26, so I was in great need of a mentor and guide.”

Starting out small in 1974, Lehrhaus Judaica went from offering its classes in a one-page mimeographed catalog to the expansive year-round operation it is today, serving the entire Bay Area and beyond.

Fromer remained involved in large-scale projects even into his 80s. He continued to seek out new pieces of Judaica for the Magnes and played an important co-curatorial role in the recent “Jews of the Fillmore” exhibit, assembled by Rosenbaum.

As recently as a few weeks ago, Fromer had been thinking ahead to a new exhibit, based on the art of Bay Area muralist Bernard Zackheim.

“Last week, he called me very excited about this possible exhibit co-sponsored by Lehrhaus Judaica and the Magnes,” Rosenbaum said Oct. 26. “He had the enthusiasm of a child. I told him he and I would be co-curators.”

Added Dinkelspiel, “Seymour was always on the prowl looking for Jewish artifacts. It didn’t matter that he was no longer [Magnes] director. He was out there looking for things and talking about what the Magnes could do. This was in his blood.”

Seymour Fromer is survived by his wife, Rebecca Camhi Fromer, of Berkeley; daughter Mira Z. Amiras, professor of Comparative Religion at San Jose State University; and two grandchildren, Michael Zussman and Rayna Leonora Savrosa, both of Brooklyn, N.Y.

The family requests that donations in Seymour Fromer’s memory be sent to the Judah L. Magnes Museum, 2911 Russell St., Berkeley, 94705.