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Joan Kleinerman, Jewish community advocate, world traveler, and beloved friend, dies

Joan Semilof Kleinerman

Joan Semilof Kleinerman died March 31, 2021, at the age of 92. Joan was born on September 1, 1927 to Dorothy and Morris Semilof in Brooklyn, New York. Throughout her life, she would always think of New York City as the center of the world she enjoyed and remembered.

Joan was a good student and participated in school activities. As a teenager, Joan and her friends had fun bicycling to Coney Island or taking the train to Manhattan. She was a good athlete in softball and tennis and that carried into college and throughout her life. Later there would be bridge, golf, bowling and water skiing. She was fond of saying “How you play sports is how you live your life. You deal with the adversary; you deal with what’s handed to you and you make adjustments. Sports is a metaphor for life.”

In the late summer of 1945, at the age of 18, Joan arrived in Tucson ready to start classes at the University of Arizona. The big city girl fell in love with the Old Pueblo immediately and soon after with Eddie, her husband. Joan met Ed at college on a blind date after he returned from WWII. They were married on December 25, 1947. She was fond of saying that the whole world celebrated their anniversary. Joan had two children, Ellen Rosen and Arnold Kleinerman, grandson Andrew Kleinerman (Ami) and great-grandson Asher.

Volunteering and commitment to the Jewish community was a big part of Joan’s life and it started early. She saw this growing up when her father was active with people behind the scenes in the lead-up to the creation of the State of Israel. She felt the responsibility to carry on traditions, remembering the wonderful holiday celebrations at her parents’ and grandparents’ home.

The main focus of Joan’s volunteer work was the Jewish Community Center and Anshei Israel. In their early years as newlyweds, Joan and Ed were instrumental in bringing men’s and women’s B’nai B’rith chapters to Tucson. For her, as always, these activities were the perfect combination of socializing and doing important community work.

What was important to Joan? Whatever she did with friends or sports or card games had to be the best she could do. She believed sports had purpose, took the challenge seriously and didn’t enjoy casual play. Making the effort, knowing how to fail or succeed, not breaking rules because it was convenient – these were her values. She wanted to earn feeling good about herself. “I may have lost, but I lost fairly and could hold my head up.”

Cooking was a big part of Joan’s life – she called it her “art” – and from holiday dinners to big parties or anniversary celebrations, Joan enjoyed every minute of menu planning and cooking. As important as the menu and preparations were, she also wanted to create a memorable experience for her guests.

Joan was adventurous. She went to Russia in the 1970’s with a tour group, but her bigger purpose was to distribute forbidden religious books to Refuseniks. In her suitcase, she secretly packed these forbidden items. While in Uzbekistan, Joan had a pre-arranged meeting with a Refusenik. Leaving her hotel alone at 11 o’clock at night – completely against the rules for foreign visitors – she traveled alone by subway to a particular stop. As pre-arranged, Joan wore a certain flower on her jacket as a sign to the Refusenik who would escort her to the home of the awaiting group. She remembered an emotional experience meeting with the group of 20 people to give them what she brought: prayer books, tefillin, and yarmulkes. She felt a sense of purpose and accomplishment.

Her life with Eddie was fun and adventurous. There was boating, friends, and a full social life. In 1988, Joan and Ed went to Israel as army volunteers. She enjoyed the camaraderie with the other volunteers from around the world and experienced a sense of purpose out in the Negev Desert. Meeting Israeli Army men and women was a powerful experience for Joan. Throughout her life, she remained in contact with many of the volunteers she met.

Travel was a big part of Joan’s life. For her, the excitement of travel was about the world and its people; that people were real human beings with different customs and ways. Traveling with the Elder Hostel programs, Joan enjoyed meeting new interesting people and her sense of adventure never waned.

As the years passed, Joan had to give up golf. Then tennis. Then bowling. She would say, “well, shoulder and knee joints don’t last forever; there’s other things to do.” Joan just marched on without complaint or self-pity. Her interested in bridge grew and she became involved in high level bridge games with new people.

Planning her 90th birthday party was something Joan loved, pouring over recipes, making final decisions on entertainment and decorations. While peppered with life’s ups and downs, there was always community that sustained her whether it was people or involvement in service work.

A few years ago, in thoughtful preparation for this moment, Joan told Ellen, “Make sure you write that I didn’t suffer fools.”

“I think they already know that,” Ellen replied.

“Well … yes” Joan added contritely, “… I know I’m not always easy to deal with … so also put in there that I’m sorry and apologize to anyone I’ve hurt.”

Joan Kleinerman loved good food, gin and tonic, gelato in Italy, festivals in Mexico, snorkeling in Tahiti and good conversation. Often causing wide-eyed anxiety in others, she never shied away from controversial topics. She had strong opinions and relished a good adversary. “Go big or go home” was her motto. She loved My Fair Lady, Gershwin, and Sinatra. Joan was grateful for wonderful friends, memorable experiences, and a charmed life.

Due to Covid restrictions, there will be no funeral or burial gathering. Donations in Joan’s name can be made to local Jewish organizations or institutions or any Guide Dogs for the Blind organization.