Sarah Bendiner Fenner
Loving mother, family educator, activist
Sarah Bendiner Fenner, a former Claremont resident, died on August 28, 2014 at age 47 after 12 years of dealing with breast cancer. Following her initial diagnosis in 2002, she committed herself to a full and intentional life with her family and within her community.
She was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on June 28, 1967. In 1974, she moved to northern California with her parents Ray Bendiner and Joanna Cades Bendiner (Horowitz) and younger siblings Naomi and Jonathan. The family moved to Claremont in 1977, where Sarah attended Oakmont Elementary, El Roble Intermediate and Claremont High School. She later studied at the New College in San Francisco.
As a young teen Sarah served as a candy striper and volunteered with the Red Cross. She was an active member of the Foreign Students Association at Claremont High. She also became very involved in activities aimed at Jewish teens, serving on the boards of the southern California and North American chapters of the Federation of Temple Youth. She eventually became president and vice president, respectively, of the organizations.
Because of her investment in her many leadership roles, she was invited to be part of a trip which took her to visit numerous concentration camps and to share that experience with other American youth on her return to the States. She traveled to Israel in 1986 as part of the inaugural group of young people participating in an Israel immersion program called OTZMA. During that intensive year she met her fellow participant, Natan (Anthony) Fenner. They were married in Claremont in 1991.
The couple subsequently returned to Israel, where she served on the staff of the OTZMA program. At the conclusion of that yearlong program, Ms. Bendiner Fenner moved to Philadelphia where her husband began his rabbinic studies and where their two sons were born.
Ms. Bendiner Fenner served in many roles within her community. She actively worked as a doula and a childbirth and family educator, helping to create a program supporting new parents through the Bureau of Jewish Education. She also organized a conference—co-sponsored by the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, the HUC-JIR Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health and the UCSF School of Medicine—called Models of Cooperation: Reflections on the Jewish Healing Movement.
Her family, however, was always her first and foremost concern. She was an excellent cook and frequently contributed foods created with the specific needs of the recipients in mind. She learned each person’s allergies and was well-known for creating gourmet meals that could be gluten-free or kosher or wheat-free or avoidant of specific allergens. Even in the midst of dealing with her own increasing illness, Sarah made the needs and concerns of others a paramount focus in her life. Her friends and family members are currently in the process of gathering her many recipes to create a book in her memory for all to share.
Ms. Bendiner Fenner found that few Jewish prayers resonated with her once she embarked on the often-grueling treatment of her illness. As a result, she was inspired to create what she called her “Chemotherapy Siddur,” a prayer book featuring blessings from many sources along with cards and photos. Requests for the book—which was highlighted in the New York Times as well as in J., the Jewish news weekly of northern California—began pouring in.
“Basically, I thought how would I transform this negative event and the whole sort of ‘fight mentality,’ which I didn’t really relate to at all, and how was I going to make that positive,” she said in a 2005 J. interview. “I needed to frame it in a constructive way.”
At first, Ms. Bendiner Fenner created handmade siddurs for other women facing cancer. The Berkeley nonprofit Jewish Milestones later lent her a hand with the Herculean task, publishing and distributing a “Chemo Siddur” to provide strength for others
All who knew Ms. Bendiner Fenner were inspired by her glowing smile and positive attitude. “While cancer colored her life deeply and limited her, she lived a rich and full life despite it,” her husband noted in a recent J. tribute.
Throughout her lengthy illness, Sarah was determined to see her “boys” settled in college and solidly making their way as young adults. Two years ago, she traveled with her oldest son, Micah, to be a part of his move to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She was absolutely determined to see her youngest son, Evan, set up for his freshman year at the Claremont Colleges. Having accomplished that final goal, Sarah was in Claremont, with her family, at the time of her death.
She is survived by her husband Natan Fenner and her sons Micah and Evan Fenner; by her mother Joanna Bendiner Horowitz; by her sister Naomi Bendiner Woldemar (Chris); by her brother Jonathan Bendiner, and by her niece and nephew, Hannah Bendiner and Eliott Bendiner.
Funeral services were held in San Rafael on Sunday, August 31, 2014. Donations in Sarah’s memory may be made to Hillel at the Claremont Colleges, 919 Columbia Ave., Claremont CA 91711-3904. For information, call (909) 621-8685.