Hannah Biberstein

By May 5, 2011

On April 26, longtime Davis resident and social activist Hannah Biberstein, 82, died at her home in Davis, surrounded by her family.

Born in Essen, Germany, the daughter of a rabbi, she fled with her family from Nazi persecution to New York, where her father founded a new congregation. One of its member families included Ernie Biberstein, whom she met while still a teenager and eventually took as her husband for a marriage that lasted over 61 years. A brilliant student, graduating with top honors in political science from Hunter College, New York, she nonetheless was a housewife and mother during the first years of her marriage while her four children grew to school age, before she resumed her studies for a master’s degree in political philosophy at UC Davis.

Her subsequent careers included teaching at community college, working for University Extension and, finally, working as university employee relations manager, before retiring in 1991.

From her experience as member of an oppressed minority in Nazi Germany, she acquired an unquenchable passion for confronting and relieving injustice, whether political, economic, social, national or religious, and without regard for the flag it sailed under. It was this passion that motivated most of her volunteer and civic activities in town. She was a founding member of Davis Community Meals, Care for God’s Creation, Celebration of Abraham, Yolo Interfaith Immigration Network and Community Mediation Services in Davis and Yolo County. She served for well over a decade on the City of Davis Social Services Commission as member and chair, and chaired its Affordable Housing Task Force. Housing the poor, the disabled and the aged was her major concern. For her broad volunteer engagements Hannah shared in a number of prestigious civic awards.

Hannah was one of the founders of the organized Jewish community in Davis, which evolved from the Jewish Fellowship of Davis of the late 1950s to the present Congregation Bet Haverim. Her religious commitment was one and inseparable from her uncompromising dedication to justice and care for the poor, the marginalized and the neglected. She was a charter member of the congregation’s social action committee and a co-founder of Israel Peace Alternatives, and served on the committee that painstakingly worked out a system establishing that group’s legitimate place within the congregation.

Yet notwithstanding her fervent interest in public issues, Hannah’s most passionate cause was her family, starting with her own four children and eventually their spouses, and finally her grandchildren and their spouses. With each grandchild she took the time and effort to develop a special relationship, doing what they enjoyed, whether it was Legos, cooking stone soup or attending a Kings’ game. Her family was her source of pride and joy, and she believed that there was no family anywhere as firmly cohesive and mutually supportive as hers.

Hannah is survived by her loving husband, Ernie; her son Michael Biberstein of San Diego; daughters Helen Swanagon of San Luis Obispo, Anne Gieseke of Benicia and Julie Biberstein of San Francisco; and eight grandchildren. Donations in her memory can be made to the Biberstein Social Action Fund, Congregation Bet Haverim, 1715 Anderson Road, Davis, or Yolo Hospice, 1909 Galileo Court, Suite A, Davis.

Special to The Enterprise

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