Sara Berenson Stone, whose philanthropy and volunteerism in New Orleans spanned eight decades, died Saturday. She was 102.
Stone grew up in Bogalusa, the child of Russian immigrants. Her father had fled the city of Bialystok after a violent pogrom there in which mobs and czarist army troops went from house to house, killing Jews.
“He had to fight his way out of the city and battle to help family and friends who were under assault,” said her son, Harvey Stone.
Sara Stone’s community involvement stemmed from a lifetime of watching her parents help others, her son said: “Her father led every fund drive in Bogalusa and went out of his way to help poor people, whether black or white.”
In an oral history conducted in 2008 for the Jewish Women’s Archive of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, Sara Stone recalled her father helping some black women pay for their children’s college education. She also remembered how, even as a child, black people were taught to step off the sidewalk to let her pass because she was white. That “really bothered me a lot,” she said.
After graduating from Duke University, she enrolled in the Tulane University School of Social Work for a semester. As a graduate student, she worked with poor families in the French Quarter, then a rundown part of town.
During the oral-history interview, she recalled asking families to make a choice between receiving a blanket or coal to heat their apartment. “To this day, I wake up in the middle of the night wondering which one I would have taken if I had to choose,” she said.
She left Tulane, against the advice of the dean, to take an apprenticeship with the Southern Women’s Educational Alliance in Richmond, Virginia. As part of that apprenticeship, she spent time in poverty-stricken Breathitt County, Kentucky, providing vocational guidance to high school students and working with teachers who had no college experience.
Afterward, she moved back to New Orleans and in the mid-1930s met lawyer Saul Stone, who with John Minor Wisdom had founded Stone and Wisdom, the firm that would become today's Stone Pigman Walther Wittmann. They were married in 1938; he died in 2001.
As a young wife and mother, she served on dozens of boards, including the New Orleans Community Chest (later the United Way); held key positions in a number of Jewish organizations in town; and helped to raise money for the newly established state of Israel. At Isidore Newman School, a chair in the arts bears her name.
But her defining moment came through her work helping to lead the New Orleans section of the National Council of Jewish Women, her son said. After World War II, she threw herself into work for the council, helping to resettle Jewish refugees who had been kept in displaced-person camps in Europe until 1948.
For the next three years, New Orleans — one of three United States ports of entry — received a ship nearly every month, each carrying around 1,200 people.
Up to a quarter of the refugees were Jewish, and Stone’s mission was to help them, taking them first to the Jewish Community Center, where the refugees could eat, shower and get health care before settling in New Orleans or heading by train to a new location. “It really changed the direction of my life,” she said in the 2008 interview.
Known for her love of books, ballet, theater, travel and cuisine, Stone received many awards but also was known as an approachable, quick-witted conversationalist at bars in Italy and New Orleans. Pictures of her hung on the wall at her frequent restaurants — Galatoire’s, Antoine’s and Pascal’s Manale — where every bartender knew her order, a Beefeater martini on the rocks.
She remained active until about a year ago, when she broke her hip. Though her social life then became limited, she never ceased to keep up her end of a conversation. “Her mind was totally alive,” her son Harvey said. “She was always a tremendous reader, even as her eyesight failed. She would use a magnifying glass and shine a bright light on whatever she was reading.”
Stone viewed her own experiences with an equally bright lens. The only true blow she suffered in her life was when her eldest son, David, died of cancer in 2005, she told the interviewer in 2008. “Outside of that, I doubt anybody has had an easier and luckier life than I’ve had,” she said.
She also hoped that her grandchildren wouldn’t see the anti-Semitism and racial and economic inequities she’d witnessed. “Let them live in a world of peace and a world without prejudice,” she said. “Just give them that.”
Survivors include two sons, Richard and Harvey; a daughter, Carol Stone; a brother, Gerald Berenson; 10 grandchildren; and 15 great-grandchildren.
A funeral will be held at noon Monday at Shir Chadash Synagogue, 3737 West Esplanade Ave., inn Metairie. Visitation will begin at 10 a.m. Burial will be in Hebrew Rest Cemetery No. 3. Tharp-Sontheimer-Tharp Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.