By Richard Friedman
She was a small, soft-spoken woman. In her later years, you had to strain to hear her. Yet, her presence endures. Until her final months, Betty Allenberg Goldstein was an inspiring, indefatigable lioness, fiercely committed to her beloved Birmingham Jewish community.
Betty passed away on June 4 at the age of 95. Those who knew her will remember her for the rest of their lives. She was a true Daughter of Zion. Tucked inside this diminutive woman was a huge heart. She was one of those people who came to be known simply by her first name — Betty.
She served on important boards and committees. She was proud that she once was a member of the United Jewish Appeal’s National Women’s Division Board. Yet, Betty’s leadership and influence ultimately stemmed from her sincerity, caring and, especially, from just showing up — year after year, decade after decade. She was never not interested in what was going on in the community.
Among her philanthropic passions were the Birmingham Jewish Federation, Birmingham Jewish Foundation, Temple Emanu-El, Alabama Holocaust Education Center, Israel and the Henry S. Jacobs Camp, the regional summer camp in Utica. The connection with Jacobs Camp was particularly important to her because her father, Julian Allenberg, had been one of the camp’s founders.
What Betty will most likely be remembered for is that she “walked the walk” — and did it with humility, passion and a burning interest in all things Jewish. When she couldn’t attend national conferences, she would purchase recordings of the sessions. She never wanted to miss anything.
Announcing Betty’s passing to the Birmingham Jewish Foundation board, executive director Sally Friedman wrote, “As long as she was able, Betty never missed a Federation or Jewish community event. She attended many Lion of Judah conferences and visited Israel multiple times. She was an ‘Energizer Bunny’ when it came to advocating for Israel, our Jewish community and Jacobs Camp.” Friedman shared a secret with her board. “When Betty was in her 70s, we joked that she should win the Federation’s Young Leadership award!”
Betty gave to the Birmingham Jewish Federation Campaign throughout her adult lifetime and endowed her annual campaign gift through the Birmingham Jewish Foundation. For that, she received the Foundation’s N.E. Miles Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2016, at the age of 88, she was honored by the Alabama Holocaust Education Center with its L’Chaim Award for being “a giver, doer, goer, helper and more.”
Mentor is another word that could have been used to describe Betty. Through the support she gave to younger professional and volunteer leaders in the Jewish community, and the interest she showed in each of them, she taught commitment, perseverance and dedication to community causes.
Staff at the Birmingham Jewish Federation and Foundation loved it when she would stop by — often after her fitness workout at the Levite Jewish Community Center. They especially liked that she was not one for small talk. She would get right to the point, wanting to know who was ascending to leadership roles, how the campaign was going, what staff knew about the current situation in Israel. She especially thrived on learning a few behind the scenes tidbits which she faithfully kept confidential.
Betty never left the Federation office without asking how she could help.
She also was a political activist. For decades, Betty was involved in civic initiatives and political campaigns. In 1975, she worked as a volunteer in the successful mayoral campaign of David Vann, a turning point in Birmingham’s history. At age 90, when most people are retired from community activities, Betty volunteered in the 2018 U.S. Senatorial campaign of Doug Jones, another historic event. Those who worked with her on the Jones campaign affectionately called her “Aunt Betty.”
Betty grew up in Memphis. In 1946, at the age of 18, she married Herman Goldstein and moved to Birmingham. Betty had three children, Edward, Corinne and Amy, along with five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
For many years, Betty, who was divorced, dated Morris Sirote, a founder of the Dentons Sirote law firm. As their relationship evolved, Sirote expanded his charitable giving, leaving a large and enduring impact on both the Jewish and broader Birmingham communities. Betty played a critical role in motivating him philanthropically.
Betty’s 95 years covered an epic era in Jewish history. She saw the rise of Nazism in Europe, the murder of 6 million Jews, the rebirth of Israel as a modern Jewish state and the exodus of more than 1 million Jews from the Soviet Union.
She was affected personally by the era in which she came of age. When she was 16, her older brother and only sibling, Edward Allenberg, serving in the American military, was killed in World War II in the Battle of the Bulge. Her children recall that Betty never talked about the loss of her brother, though she did name her first-born son Edward.
Their mother had a remarkable zest for life, her children say, and was determined to savor every moment and embrace every experience, even as she aged and her mobility became limited. The loss of her brother inspired Betty to live each moment to its fullest.
A favorite Betty story is this: One afternoon, she was visited at her Mountain Brook home. She was told that the Federation wanted to start an endowment in the Foundation to provide more funding for staff professionals to attend conferences and travel to Israel. She listened, then interrupted.
“How much do you need?” she asked.
When told the amount, she responded immediately with three words — words that will endure as her community epitaph: “Count me in.”
That was Betty, not just that day but every day. She will be missed.