Longtime director of Montefiore Senior Center dies

Susanna Moyal, a longtime activist in the Jewish community, died Dec. 27 in her daughter's home in Oakland after a five-year fight with cancer.

"Suse," as she was known to all, was 87.

From 1958, when Moyal arrived in San Francisco until her strength gave out in the early 1990s, she did what she loved to do — organize people for pleasure and for social action.

"Suse charmed everyone who met her," said Dolores Taller, a longtime friend. "Her exuberant energy and boundless curiosity and concern about people and the world made you feel lucky just to be in her presence."

Professionally, Moyal was a pioneer in the field of gerontology. She served as director of the Montefiore Senior Center, now based in the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, from 1959 to 1972.

She then directed adult programming at the Peninsula JCC in Belmont until her retirement in 1974.

For almost two decades, she dedicated herself to Jewish groups that worked for peace with the Palestinians.

In later years, Moyal was also active with the Gray Panthers.

"This was a woman who transformed and inspired everyone who knew her," recalled another friend, Roberta Maisel. "She had a love of life and a quality that turned the world around her into a stage for exploration and giving."

Born in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1912 to a middle-class family that traced its roots back 300 years in the area, Moyal loved to recall the intellectual and musical salons hosted in her home in the 1920s.

Sent by her father to England and France to be educated as a translator, she found herself unemployable when she returned to Germany.

She lost her first job, then another because she was Jewish.

When she lost the second position, her father, who had business connections outside the country, decided the family would leave. In 1933, soon after the Nazis came to power, they moved to France.

In Paris, she met and married Joe Moyal, from the prominent Sephardic Navon family in pre-state Israel. The couple moved to Tel Aviv where their daughter, Orah, was born in 1937. While Suse Moyal's time there was rich with the camaraderie of the young actors of the Habimah theater, the young family struggled financially.

When World War II broke out, Moyal was on her own back in France with the toddler and her mother in a small rural town in Brittany. Her husband was in England. Her father was interned, considered an enemy alien by the Vichy government.

It wasn't long before the Germans arrived in her area. Rather than go into hiding, her reaction was to meet the enemy face to face. She went to German headquarters and asked to see the commanding officer. In her native German, she explained that she had a British passport but had grown up in Germany and was Jewish.

The whole conversation was very brief, no longer than 10 minutes, she later recalled. The officer was polite and reassured her that they were only passing through.

Later, the Germans did come for the "British alien." Again, she talked her way out of arrest, showing the commanding officer that she had a passport from a place he had never heard of — Palestine.

Eventually, she made her way out of wartime Europe with her daughter on the last ship to sail to England from Lisbon.

Her parents survived the war by hiding in a small village in France.

In England, she was reunited with her husband, moving to Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1946. She enjoyed telling how, as the only Jewish woman in the maternity ward, she was placed in a hospital bed between the Protestant and Catholic women when she gave birth to her son, David.

Divorced a decade later, Moyal came to San Francisco with her two children. She had no money, few marketable skills, but a great love of adventure.

San Francisco was a great match.

She soon got a job at the Montefiore center, then located in the basement of a church.

During her tenure there, "senior power" became a reality. With her help, the seniors became a lobbying force at city hall, helping to win a discount fare on public transit.

She expanded programming, creating a multiservice agency to meet a variety of social needs.

After her retirement, she moved to Berkeley and became a community activist. She helped organize the Over 60 Health Clinic and initiated a shared-housing program to meet the needs of seniors seeking companionship.

Her home was also a center of activity for a host of Jewish peace organizations, including Breira, the New Jewish Agenda, the Jewish Peace Lobby and Partners for Peace.

She was a founder of Berkeley's Women in Black, which held silent vigils each week to protest Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

In 1982, with New Jewish Agenda, she hosted one of the first community seders for unaffiliated Jews in Berkeley.

Moyal remained an avid hiker and world traveler when her organizing pace began to slow down, slinging a pack on her back and sleeping out in the open until she was in her late 70s.

She is survived by her children, Orah Young of Oakland and David Moyal of Walnut Creek; a nephew, Henry Polard of Palo Alto; grandchildren Mark and Stephen Young, both of Albuquerque, N.M.; and two great-granddaughters, Jeanine and Julia Young, also of Albuquerque.

A memorial service open to the community will be held at 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 6 at the Berkeley Piano Club, 2724 Haste St. For information, call (510) 559-8161.

Contributions in Moyal's memory can be made to St. Mary's Center Homeless Program, 635 22nd Ave., Oakland, CA 94612; Jewish Music Festival, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley, CA 94709; or Doctors Without Borders, 6 East 39th St., Eighth Floor, New York, NY 10016.