Lee Marsh
Lee Marsh, who died on March 7, 2015. Photo: courtesy family

By Nicki Gilbert

Lee Marsh, beloved husband, grandfather, father, friend, and inspiring community leader, passed away on March 7 at the age of 96.

As one of the very first people to recognize the need for a new communal Jewish home in the East Bay, Lee had a profound impact on the Bay Area Jewish community. In 1978, together with Esther Redel and Ursula Sherman, he co-founded the JCC East Bay.

Their vision to create an educational and cultural center for the diverse community of unaffiliated Jewish families and individuals in the Berkeley-Richmond corridor began in a storefront on University Avenue. Just two years later, thanks to Lee’s keen business acumen, his unwavering determination and fiery passion, the JCC found its permanent home on 1414 Walnut Street. Today, the JCC East Bay offers programs and services for all ages in Berkeley and Oakland, including camp and teen programs absorbed from the Oakland-Piedmont and Contra Costa JCCs when they closed.

Born in Brooklyn to Russian emigrant parents in 1918, Lee lived a life of hard work and unwavering devotion to his family and community. He inspired hope, integrity and goodwill wherever he went. On the day before he died, his hospice nurse referred to him as “a ray of sunshine.”

Lee married his wife, Dorothy, in 1946, and they moved to Detroit in 1948 where their two daughters, Julie and Robin, were born. Lee learned the electrician trade and worked as an electrical contractor. In 1961, the family moved to Berkeley where Lee founded the successful business, Marsh Electric Co., and established himself as a true community leader.

A progressive democrat all his life, Lee fought tirelessly for what he believed in: to end discrimination in the trade unions (Marsh Electric Co. was always a union shop), greater opportunities for minority contractors in the construction industry, and a good public education for everyone, among other social justice causes. He served on the Berkeley Waterfront and Berkeley Planning City Commissions, and Berkeley’s Mayor Tom Bates remembers him with tremendous warmth and admiration: “He was such a wonderful, wonderful man. We are just so lucky to have had him in our lives.”

For the Bay Area Jewish community, Lee’s greatest legacy is the JCC East Bay.

Lee served as the first President of the Berkeley-Richmond JCC (1980-1984), and continued as an active member of the Board for many years. He established the BRJCC Adult Education Center, initiated the Berkeley Jewish Theater, and created and promoted a collegial, diverse, and welcoming working environment at the JCC for Jews and non-Jews. Lee and the staff of the JCC felt an ongoing great mutual respect and affection for each other.

The JCC was always a “second home” to Lee and his family, to which they contributed generously. Dorothy has been an innovative leader and founded the JCC’s popular “Sunday AM Food for Thought Program.” Their grandchildren, Rebecca and Roxanne, attended the JCC preschool and afterschool programs, and Roxanne celebrated her bat mitzvah at the JCC East Bay in 2010.

Nate Levine, principal at BuildingBlox Consulting and executive director of the Berkeley-Richmond JCC during Lee’s presidency, said: “Lee was an extraordinary leader and mentor. He was visionary, hands-on, and generous in all ways, including intellect, spirit and affection. The Bay Area Jewish community has lost somebody very special – Lee’s absence will be felt.”

Lee’s commitment to inclusivity and social justice, his vision and generosity for the growth of a vibrant Jewish community, have inspired many Jewish community leaders, and he leaves a legacy of leadership, stewardship, and true community.

Lee is survived by Dorothy, his wife of 68 years, daughters Julie and Robin, granddaughters Rebecca, Lily, Michelle and Roxanne, and his sister Laurel in New York.

A celebration of Lee’s life will be held at the Jewish Community Center East Bay (1414 Walnut Street, Berkeley) on Sunday April 12, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. In lieu of flowers, donations in his memory may be made to the JCC East Bay or to an organization that supports social justice and equality.

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